Taylor declared innocent after years in prison

Greg Taylor hugs his lawyer after the decision was announced.

February 16, 2010 9:00:00 PM PST
Years of trying to prove his innocence paid off for Greg Taylor of Cary Wednesday. A special three judge panel hearing his case ruled he should be set free. It's the first time an inmate has been freed through the actions of the state's Innocence Inquiry Commission.

Seventeen years ago, Taylor was convicted of the September, 1991 murder of Raleigh prostitute Jacquetta Thomas, 26, whose body was found dumped on South Blount Street in Raleigh.

Taylor, 47, said he spent the night of September 25, 1991 drinking and doing drugs with friends while he drove around southeast Raleigh to buy crack cocaine.

Taylor said he believed police latched on to him for the murder because he and a friend drove along a dirt path off the same cul-de-sac where Thomas's body was found. Taylor and the friend smoked crack, but his SUV got stuck as they tried to drive away. They abandoned the SUV and walked to a nearby street to get a ride.

Taylor testified they saw what they thought was a body but didn't report it to police. When Taylor returned in the morning to get the SUV, the police were already there.

Taylor had exhausted his appeals, but the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission reviewed the evidence against him last year and recommended the case to the three judge panel for further review. The commission is the only state-run agency in the country that investigates claims of innocence.

During several days of testimony, a parade of witnesses poked holes in the original evidence against Taylor.

A SBI agent testified that while initial tests on some items from Taylor's sport utility vehicle were positive for blood, follow-up tests were negative. Those negative tests were not revealed to the jury that convicted Taylor.

A dog training expert testified that the bloodhound that investigators said found the scent of the victim on Taylor's SUV was not trained in scent identification.

A jailhouse snitch who said that Taylor confessed his involvement in Thomas's killing to him stood by his original testimony, but did admit that Taylor got the method of killing wrong.

Johnny Beck, the man who was in Taylor's SUV on the night of the murder, testified neither he nor Taylor were involved in Thomas's death.

But during his closing arguments Wednesday, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said the evidence presented by Taylor's lawyers wasn't logical, credible or believable. He dismissed testimony about the lack of blood evidence and focused on eyewitnesses who said they saw Taylor with Thomas the night she died.

Still, after reviewing the testimony, the three judge panel made up of Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, District Judge Tanya Wallace of Rockingham and Mecklenberg County Superior Court Judge Calvin Murphy found that Taylor should not have been convicted of the Thomas murder.

Taylor tightly shut his eyes as the judge's ruling was read. As he realized he was about to be set free, he leapt back and hugged his lawyer as the audience burst into shouts and applause.

Willoughby was philosophical about his defeat.

"I felt like it was our responsibility to present the evidence and let the panel decide," he said. "The judges have ruled and I accept that."

"My job is not to win or lose, but present the evidence and the courts make the proper decision," he continued.

Taylor was immediately set free.

"You think all these years about what this day would be like," he said - overcome with emotion.

Reporters asked about his plans.

"I just want to do what my family wants me to do," he said.

Taylor spoke of wanting to continue interests he developed in prison, including computers, working out, and reading. He also spoke about his daughter - who was just nine when he was convicted. He said he missed her birthdays, her high school and college graduations and her wedding.

"But now I'm going to take him home," Taylor's daughter Kristen Puryear said.

During an one-on-one interview with ABC11, Taylor said he purposely waited to meet his son-in-law because he didn't want to meet him behind bars.

"I had goals," Taylor said. "My goal was to get out, and my goal was to look back and know that I did the best that I could."

In addition to new people and new freedom, there's a bit of a parental role reversal as his daughter now teaches her father how to live his new life and cope with life on the outside.

"I've dreamed of this for so long and I'm so glad that this day is finally here," Puryear said.

Taylor wouldn't talk about any possible lawsuits, but he says he will spend his new freedom working with the North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence - the organization that helped free him.

He says he will work to make sure others aren't wrongfully convicted.

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