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North Carolina Innocence Commission Verifies Wrongful Conviction

by Matt Clarke

After examining hundreds of cases, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission has verified its first claim of innocence – which resulted in both controversy and stinging criticism from prosecutors.

In 2006, North Carolina became the first state to establish a government agency with the sole mandate of verifying prisoners’ claims of innocence. That unprecedented action was taken following a string of high-profile wrongful convictions, including those of Darryl Hunt and Allen Gell.

Hunt had served 18 years for rape and murder; he later received $1.95 million in settlements from North Carolina and the City of Winston-Salem. [See: PLN, Oct. 2008, p.47]. Gell, who was sentenced to death, served 8 years prior to his re-lease and received a $3.9 million settlement from the state plus $93,750 from the town of Aulander. [See: PLN, Nov. 2005, p.8]. Both Hunt and Gell were exonerated in 2004.

“As a state that exacts the ultimate punishment, we should continue to ensure that we have the ultimate fairness in the review of our cases,” then-Governor Mike Easley said when the Innocence Inquiry Commission was formed. [See: PLN, March 2007, p.24].

Fortified with a $360,000 annual budget, the Commission examined hundreds of claims but had never verified a prisoner’s innocence until September 2009, when it presented the case of Gregory F. Taylor to an eight-member panel that included a judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney and a victims’ advocate. The function of the panel was to determine if the case should be referred to a three-judge panel with the power to free prisoners who were wrongly convicted. The Commission voted unanimously to have the judges consider Taylor’s case.

All of the cases previously reviewed by the Commission had been rejected for reasons such as the prisoner having pleaded guilty, a lack of evidence to support the innocence claim, or even new evidence of guilt. In Taylor’s case, the evidence against him was the testimony of a jailhouse snitch and a blood stain in his car. His attorneys said that evidence had been discredited since his conviction. Operating in favor of Taylor was the fact that he had continuously proclaimed his innocence over 16 years of incarceration, and that another prisoner, Craig Taylor (not related to Greg) had confessed to the crime. Craig Taylor also provided details about the 1991 rape and murder of which Greg Taylor had been convicted.

Craig Taylor’s confession sparked controversy and criticism because he had a history of confessing to murders, some of which he clearly could not have committed. His penchant for confessing to crimes was not known to the Commission when it voted to send Greg Taylor’s case to the three-judge panel.

Further, Craig Taylor continued to confess to dozens of murders after the Commission hearing, including telling journalists that he murdered prostitutes and rival drug dealers and dumped their bodies in Chesapeake Bay, and contacting the television show Unsolved Mysteries to confess to 65 unspecified murders he committed as a master criminal known as “Ninja.” According to Greg Taylor’s prosecutor, C. Colon Willoughby, Jr., those contrived confessions undermined his claim of innocence.

Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, executive director of the Innocence Inquiry Commission, said they went to great lengths to verify Craig Taylor’s credibility. He was a known acquaintance of the victim, a prostitute, and his confession stated he be-came jealous after seeing her in a car with another man and beat her to death with a bat, stabbed her with a small knife and partially disrobed her.

His simultaneous claim that he had shot to death four women in New York, Miami and Raleigh did not deter the Commission’s investigator. Nonetheless, Montgomery-Blinn said she wished she had known about the other confessions before the Commission presented Greg Taylor’s case to the judicial panel. The Commission also considered additional evidence, including the credibility of the jailhouse snitch and the fact that the blood stain found in Taylor’s car turned out not to be blood.

Ultimately, whether or not the Commission had properly weighed Craig Taylor’s confession as part of Greg Taylor’s claim of innocence was moot, because the three-judge panel had the final say. And that say, announced on February 17, 2010, was that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Greg Taylor had been wrongly convicted.

When Taylor, 47, was released from prison the same day of the judicial panel’s decision, state officials gave him a $45 check as “gate money.” Hopefully he will seek and receive more adequate compensation for the 16 years he served behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

“North Carolina’s commission is an important model for the adjudication of innocence claims,” stated Barry Scheck, director of the Innocence Project. “In the American court system, there are normally procedural bars that get in the way of litigating whether someone is innocent or not.” That is especially true in cases like Taylor’s that do not include DNA evidence.

Several other states are considering forming innocence commissions. On July 2, 2010, the Florida Supreme Court is-sued an administrative order creating a commission “to conduct a comprehensive study of the causes of wrongful conviction and of measures to prevent such convictions.” Florida’s commission, however, will only review wrongful convictions that already have been proven, not new claims of innocence.

Sources: Associated Press, New York Times, www.newsobserver.com, CNN, www.deathpenaltyinfo.org

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