Family pushes for convict's release

Staff WriterSeptember 19, 2009 

— Greg Taylor's relatives think 16 years is too long for an innocent man to live inside a prison cell.

Friday, they stood before the Wake County courthouse, quietly urging the wheels of justice to turn a bit faster. They vow to stand there as long as it takes for Taylor to be turned loose.

It has been two weeks since the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission voted unanimously that Taylor, 47, did not murder Jacquetta Thomas in 1991. Another prisoner has confessed to the murder.

Still, Taylor waits, as the stewards of the justice system examine his case further. He sleeps in a bunk each night at a prison in Johnston County.

"We are ready to see him on our side of the fence," his friend Sandy Small said Friday, wearing a green shirt that said "Free Greg Taylor."

He must clear a few more hurdles. The commission's vote obligates the state's top judge to convene a three-judge panel to hold a hearing about Taylor's innocence. State Supreme Court Justice Sarah Parker has not yet selected the judges or scheduled a hearing.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby has the power to forgo that hearing and simply ask a judge to release Taylor. Or Willoughby could contest Taylor's release and argue against his exoneration at the hearing.

Willoughby hasn't decided what to do. He has asked assistant prosecutor Tom Ford, the man who prosecuted Taylor in 1993, to review the new evidence collected by the commission, including the new confession.

In recent weeks, Willoughby has cast doubt on the validity of the other man's confession.

Craig Taylor, a former drug dealer who now admits he killed Thomas, has been trying to confess since 1996. According to prison medical records, Taylor told a psychologist in 1996 that he needed to confess to two murders. The therapist noted then that Craig Taylor "is matter of fact about his intent and there is no psychosis present."

In a taped prison phone conversation with his mother this summer, Craig Taylor said he must get his confession off his chest before he dies.

"I couldn't live with myself ... if I'm keeping two guys ... away from their family, they done lost, they done lost so much ... I'm saying ... for the past eighteen years," he tells his mother, not knowing that charges against the second suspect, Johnny Beck, were dismissed more than 10 years ago.

Friday, Gregory Taylor's family hoped their quiet vigil would persuade Willoughby to petition a judge to abandon the conviction against him. The day before, Taylor's only child, Kristen Puryear, wrote Willoughby, imploring him to reunite the family.

"There are so many memories he missed being a part of," wrote Puryear, now grown and a mother. "The sooner he can be released, then the sooner we can start ... making new ones."

In 1991, Taylor was battling a drug addiction and had gone from his home in Cary to Southeast Raleigh to buy crack. He and a buddy pulled off into a dark, muddy lot to smoke crack; Taylor's truck got stuck in the mud.

Not 10 feet away, someone had dumped Thomas' battered, naked body. Police found it and Taylor's abandoned truck the next day.

Taylor has sworn since the start that he is innocent. He exhausted every possible relief in state and federal courts, appealing his conviction four times. In 2003, Taylor sought retesting of DNA evidence from the crime scene; his family offered to pay for it. Ford, the prosecutor, protested, and a judge denied Taylor's request.

The innocence commission retested the DNA this year. It found no evidence that Gregory Taylor had ever touched Thomas.

mandy.locke@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8927

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