Innocence Project of Florida requests new trial for Miami man convicted of murder in 1973

Over four decades ago, Thomas Gilbert was sent to prison after a jury convicted him of murdering a tourist during a robbery in North Miami Beach. Another prison inmate, a few years later, sent prosecutors a letter confessing that he, not Gilbert, was the actual killer.

Police detectives launched a second investigation, but ultimately prosecutors decided there wasn’t enough evidence to free Gilbert and charge the other man.

Gilbert remains in prison serving a life term, and now the Innocence Project of Florida is reviving the case, asking a judge to grant a new trial. The Innocence Project this week filed a motion saying the second police investigation, as well as an interview last year with another man believed to be involved in the robbery, “raises serious concerns about the validity of Mr. Gilbert’s convictions.”

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office said it has reviewed the motion and that prosecutors “are in the process of preparing a response for the court.” No hearing date has been set.

The Innocence Project of Florida is a well-known nonprofit organization that works to free people wrongly convicted of crimes. It brought the case to prosecutors earlier this year. The State Attorney’s Office said it was reviewing the case through its “Justice Project.”

Gilbert is now 67 years old, imprisoned at Jackson Correctional Institution in the Florida Panhandle. Some of the key witnesses have now died, including Allen Hicks, the former inmate who at one point claimed to be the real killer, as well as the surviving victim who identified Gilbert as one of the robbers during his trial.

Gilbert has tasted freedom before.

He was released on parole in the early 1990s — it was not unusual in Florida at the time for people convicted of murder to serve less than two decades behind bars. But he picked up two more arrests: a drug possession in Bay County, and a burglary in Georgia. Gilbert has been back in prison since 1993, and lost several appeals, records show. (He was also convicted in the early 1980s of roughing up a prison guard during a cell search.)

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The murder happened on Oct. 25, 1973. The case was not high-profile at the time, eliciting only a short write-up by legendary Miami Herald crime writer Edna Buchanan.

William Willits, 58, and his wife, Eleanor, were staying at the Ocean Shore Motel in North Miami Beach. The were returning from picking up a pizza when two robbers approached them in the motel breezeway. One of the men took a ring from Eleanor, then the pair tried to force the couple to take them to their room.

In the confusion, a gunshot ran out and William Willits was mortally wounded. The robbers also took off with a white-gold chain, a tan purse, the slain man’s wallet, a pocket watch and American Express travelers check. A Miami Herald story from 1973 described the couple as grandparents from Chesapeake, Virginia.

A Miami Herald article from 1977 detailing the murder of William Willits at a North Miami Beach motel.

A Miami Herald article from 1977 detailing the murder of William Willits at a North Miami Beach motel.

A Miami Herald article from 1977 detailing the murder of William Willits at a North Miami Beach motel.

A few days after the killing, North Miami Beach police arrested Gilbert and a man named William Watson for an unrelated but similar robbery.

In an interview with police, Gilbert said he thought he’d been in a pool hall on the night of the murder. Watson, who was wearing a chain similar to one stolen in the robbery, refused to speak to police.

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The evidence against Watson was always solid. Eleanor Willits identified him through a photo lineup, and his fingerprint was found on the pizza box — one of the robbers had thrown it at the couple.

The chief evidence against Gilbert was Eleanor Willits’ identification of him as the second robber, which the Innocence Project now says was mistaken. A jury convicted Gilbert of second-degree murder in 1974 after a three-day trial. He was sentenced to life. Watson was also sentenced after a separate trial.

The case took a twist when in 1977, Hicks — who was in prison alongside Gilbert but on an unrelated crime — wrote a letter to the case prosecutor “confessing to his involvement,” according to the motion filed by Innocence Project lawyers Seth Miller and Krista Dolan.

The state was piqued enough that it launched another investigation into Hicks, who allegedly also confessed to several other inmates and also to one of Gilbert’s post-trial lawyers. During that 1977 investigation, a detective took Hicks to the motel, and he pointed out many details of the crime, including where the shooting happened, according to a police report.

But whether Hicks would have testified back then remains unclear. He gave a sworn statement to police. In talking with Gilbert’s former defense lawyer, in a tape-recorded statement, Hicks hedged on whether he’d done the crime, said he’d confessed “under duress” and “possibly there is another Allen Hicks who is involved and not he,” according to a police report.

Gilbert’s former lawyer, Thomas Daniel, also told police that Hicks said he “felt pressured into a con or a rough deal” and that it was not uncommon for inmates to “come forward and confess to another’s crimes,” even if it wasn’t always true.

Watson, when interviewed by police and a prosecutor, eventually admitted that Hicks was his partner that night, according to the 1977 police report. But he refused to testify to clear Gilbert’s name, saying “he would never fully incriminate himself not much matter how much time has passed,” the police report said.

Watson has since died in prison.

The 1977 state investigation also led to interviews with “many witnesses who were unknown to police and prosecutors at the time of the trial,” including a man named Bill Hearns, who allegedly gave the gun to Hicks and Watson prior to the murder, according to the Innocence Project. But in 1977, even when offered immunity by state prosecutors to testify, Hearns “denied even knowing Watson or Hicks.”

The Dade County State Attorney’s Office ultimately decided there was not enough evidence to charge Hicks and release Gilbert. Hicks too has since died.

Decades later, in January 2019, Hearns changed his story, according to the Innocence Project. He told a project investigator that while in the Dade County Jail, Watson admitted that he and Hicks had “robbed and murdered a man in Miami Beach in 1973 or 1974.” Hicks, he allegedly claimed, also confessed to him while behind bars.

“Hearns admitted that while he did not know Thomas Gilbert, he knew that Gilbert was innocent,” the motion said.

Hearns, however, has yet to tell his story to police or prosecutors.

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