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Finding Justice: Wrongfully-convicted man sentenced to 35 years seeks change

Robert Palmer spent four years of his life in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Now, he's seeking justice. (Taggart Houck/WPDE)

Gail Palmer would do anything for her son. She believed him when others didn't.

"We were thrown into the American nightmare-- the justice system," said Palmer.

Robert grew up in Horry County. He met Julia Gorman when he moved away to serve in the military for eight years.

"She was my live-in girlfriend," he said.

In 2008, she told Robert one of her daughters had given birth. She was now a grandmother.

"I said, 'I know you want to see your grandson-- let's do this,'" said Palmer, in his first-ever television interview.

Julia's daughter visited the couple in Galivants Ferry with her child, 18-month-old Aydian.

Robert said her daughter was irresponsible during the visit, staying out late, not taking care of Aydian.

"I said, 'Look, you need to leave soon because this is not right,' and I said, 'And finally, you can leave the child with us. You're not in the right place or the right state of mind to take care of the a child,'" he said.

Julia's daughter agreed.

Palmer describes it as a frustrating time. They struggled to make good money. One day, he noticed something as he was holding Aydian.

"His head was, like, almost swollen, and I said, 'Something's not right,' and the doctor said, 'Oh, it's nothing, it's just, he's got a head cold or something,' I said, 'Nah, I never seen a head cold like this.'"

One night, a week later, he heard Julia scream.

"I was like, 'What's going on?' And she's holding [Aydian] and he's seizing, and he's posturing up and I was like, 'What happened,' And she's like, 'I don't know, I found him like this and I said, 'What?'"

They called 911 and followed the ambulance to MUSC in Charleston, where an Horry County Police Detective pulled them aside.

"He said, 'Well, there is a fracture on the child's skull, and you two were the only ones with that child," said Palmer.

Aydian was taken off life support. Robert wanted answers.

"'If you've got anything to tell me, you've got to tell me now, because when they pull that plug, they're gonna look at us for murder,'" said Palmer of his conversation with Julia.

He said Julia told him she didn't know what happened.

Police questioned them for hours over several days. Finally, Robert told them he was done talking.

"He said, 'Go ahead and stand up.'" And I said, 'Okay. I stood up and he said, 'Put your hands behind your back,' and they started grabbing my arms and started putting me in handcuffs, and I turned and he said, 'Don't fight me.' I said, 'I'm not fighting ya. I'm just trying to figure out what's going on.'"

Julia confessed, telling investigators she'd hurt baby Aydian. They charged both Julia and Robert in his death.

Gail had to see her son from behind bars.

"I looked at him through that plate glass," she said. "[And asked], 'did you have anything to do with this?"

"No," he told her. "And I knew he was telling me the truth."

Regardless, life would never be the same. Robert saw his photo plastered on the front page of newspaper articles.

"I got out on bond and I went to eat one day, and there's a newspaper looking back at me-- and there I am on the front page as: a child killer," he said, beginning to choke up.

In 2011, Robert and Julia were convicted of homicide by child abuse.

"I was waiting for, like, a smoking gun or something-- somebody to come running around the corner to say, 'this is all a big misunderstanding-- something's wrong.' And that day never came."

To prison he went, surrounded by convicted felons, listening to their stories.

He said he kept thinking about how he didn't belong there.

From 2011 to 2015, he sat, appealing his case. Finally, the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned his conviction. He was free-- and broke.

Now, he's suing the State of South Carolina, Horry County and the detective who arrested him, asking for restitution.

"I don't see how you can put somebody away and not help them when they messed up in putting you there," he said.

Palmer and his mother also want a law that would force the state to reimburse wrongfully-convicted prisoners.

South Carolina Senator Greg Hembree, who served as Solicitor at the time, said there's a reason South Carolina doesn't have the law.

"Taxpayers would be exposed to a rash of frivolous claims," he said. "You have to set a whole new set of standards. You've gotta create a whole new department to manage it and pay."

Palmer and his family said they won't give up.

They credit God and their faith with helping Robert, hoping he'll be watching over their next mission.

"He made it right and now the system's got to make it right," said Gail.

Palmer is due court on his lawsuit Dec. 6.

Julia Gorman is still serving her 35-year sentence.

Gail said she's going to reach out to every Representative in the state and ask for their support in a state statute for compensation for wrongfully-convicted prisoners.

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