Greg Taylor, finally free almost 17 years after being wrongfully convicted for murder, told the New York Times, “This morning, I was laying in a jail cell with a crazy person banging on the wall next to me. Now I’m sitting at a fancy Italian restaurant talking on a cellphone.”
Taylor is the first to be freed on the recommendation of North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission. He had served 6,149 days for a murder that a three-judge panel now says he didn’t commit. His conviction and eventual exoneration reveal much about shortcomings in America’s criminal justice system.
The Associated Press reported District Attorney, C. Colon Willoughby’s post-exoneration apology to Taylor. Willoughby, the DA for Wake County, North Carolina, serves the city of Raleigh, where Taylor had been convicted of the 1991 slaying of Jaquetta Thomas. Willoughby described his apology saying, “I told him I’m very sorry he was convicted. I wish we had had all of this evidence in 1991.”
Willoughby’s comments sound gracious, but how sincere are they?
The News & Observer, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, quotes former FBI agent Gregg McCrary, who said of the now vacated conviction, “There’s tunnel vision and a rush to judgment in this case.”
But there was no rush to reconsider his case, despite the shaky evidence that convicted him. The case built against Taylor relied on jailhouse snitches who received reduced sentences for providing prosecutors with testimony implicating him. There was also questionable physical evidence—stains in Taylor’s truck that investigators initially took for blood. But prosecutors, working under Colon Willoughby, have maintained that they were ignorant of further testing that showed the stains not to be blood. As late as 2003 the Wake County District Attorney’s Office—headed by the now-gracious Willoughby—opposed DNA testing that might have strengthened Taylor’s post-conviction claims of innocence. In 1996 Craig Taylor (no relation to the exonerated Greg Taylor) began trying to confess to the murder of Jaquetta Thomas. The News & Observer reports that prison medical records indicate that he’d told a prison therapist that he’d committed two murders. But no one talked to him further at that time.
So it was not until this month that Greg Taylor’s conviction was reversed. The New York Times explained that the panel charged with deciding on the recommendation of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission determined that the evidence of Taylor’s innocence was “clear and convincing.” Greg Taylor “had been convicted based on flawed evidence and unreliable testimony.”
Although DNA didn’t play a role in Taylor’s exoneration, his case nevertheless reveals a pattern made clear by over 250 DNA exonerations documented by the Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law. Taylor’s conviction resulted from improper application of forensic science, and the use of snitch testimony, two causal factors that have long been identified with wrongful convictions.
Other causes for wrongful convictions include eyewitness misidentification, government misconduct, false confessions, and bad lawyering. Because all of these factors are widespread, researchers think that wrongful convictions are far more common than once believed. Although recent emphasis has been on DNA exonerations, Taylor’s case shows that innocence claims without DNA support also merit a fuller consideration than our traditional appellate avenues have provided.
His case also exposes the inertia and arrogance of a criminal justice system that provides few routes for those who have valid claims of innocence. The process that led to Taylor’s release is unique to North Carolina. No other state has anything like its Innocence Inquiry Commission. The commission is made of eight members, a superior court judge, a prosecuting attorney, a criminal defense attorney, a sheriff, a victims’ rights advocate, a member of the public and two additional discretionary appointments, who review claims of innocence that involve new evidence. If, upon review of a case, the commission votes that there is sufficient evidence of factual innocence, the commission will ask a three-judge panel to hear the relevant evidence and rule on the case. The commission, established in 2006 is highly selective in choosing cases for review. Its formation in 2006 was spurred by exonerations that had been delayed, lengthy, costly, and damaging to public confidence.
It also remains to be seen if District Attorney Colon Willoughby’s newly found contrition will motivate him to reform the flawed practices that led to Greg Taylor’s wrongful conviction.