RALEIGH, N.C. – A North Carolina man who insisted he was innocent of murder through more than 16 years in prison was declared a free man Wednesday after a groundbreaking exoneration pressed by the nation’s only statewide innocence panel.
Greg Taylor’s shackles were removed and he was swept into the arms of his relatives, including a daughter and the son-in-law he met for the first time. Taylor said he was looking forward to a good meal and thrilled that he was no longer considered guilty of murdering a prostitute in 1991.
“To think all these years what this day would be like; 6,149 days and finally the truth has prevailed,” said Taylor, 47, after three judges agreed he didn’t kill Jacquetta Thomas.
The three judges, appointed by the state’s chief justice, heard six days of arguments and testimony at the recommendation of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.
The judges ruled not only that Taylor was not guilty of the beating death of Thomas, but that he proved his innocence after a case that questioned the policies of state investigators and experts whose work put Taylor behind bars.
Unlike a trial, where the prosecution must prove a defendant’s guilt, the defense was required to prove Taylor’s innocence. The attorneys did that by taking apart almost every aspect of the prosecution’s case, from proving there was no blood on Taylor’s SUV to discrediting eyewitness testimony.
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, whose office led the charge to keep Taylor behind bars, immediately walked over to Taylor after the verdict.
“I told him I’m very sorry he was convicted,” Willoughby said later. “I wish we had had all of this evidence in 1991.”
North Carolina lawmakers established the innocence commission in 2006 after a series of exonerations shamed the state’s justice system. Of the hundreds of cases reviewed by the innocence agency, only three have made it to a hearing before the body’s commissioners. Only one other has gone to a three-judge panel, and that was rejected.