RALEIGH — Panic washed over Dwayne Dail last week as he watched Gregory Taylor shuffle to the witness box, his legs shackled, and say once more that he is innocent of the crime that sent him to prison.
Not three years ago, Dail was that guy. He'd lost half his life in prison after a little girl mistakenly identified him as the man who raped her. In 2007, DNA tests finally told the truth that Dail had been trying to tell for two decades: Police had the wrong guy.
Taylor is expected to either walk free today or return to prison, where he has spent the past 17 years. For more than a week, he and his lawyers have made a case for exoneration to a panel of three judges convened after the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission said there was reason to believe he could be innocent.
Dail has never met Taylor, but he has ached for his struggle. Dail came to Raleigh last week to support Taylor's fight for freedom and console his family.
"His opportunity is so different than mine," Dail said this week. "He can fail. That must be weighing on him every night as he stares up at a concrete ceiling in jail."
The lawyer connection
Dail and Taylor are connected through Christine Mumma, a lawyer who has become a crusader for the wrongly convicted. Mumma persuaded Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory to set aside Dail's conviction in August 2007 after DNA evidence extracted from the victim's nightgown pointed to another man.
Not long after Dail was freed in 2007, he sat in Mumma's office and stared at a list of men's names tacked to the wall. Taylor's name topped the list of inmates for whom Mumma would try to win some relief in court. A few months later, Mumma sent Taylor's case to the new Innocence Inquiry Commission, hoping it could use its power to subpoena records to investigate further.
Mumma and Dail chatted about Taylor's case over the past two years, as they traveled across the country to speak to classes and conferences about wrongful convictions. She reminded Dail how grateful he should be that DNA evidence still existed in his case and that prosecutors were willing to test it again now that science could yield clearer results; Taylor was denied the right to retest evidence in his case until the commission took it up last year.
Mumma updated Dail on Taylor's case every chance she got.
"Dwayne's constantly looking for ways to find meaning in what's happened to him," said Mumma, one of three attorneys arguing for Taylor at the hearing this month. "Taylor gives him that chance."
In recent months as Mumma worked on Taylor's case, Dail stayed awake and chatted with her in the middle of the night and reminded her to take care of herself. In 2007, the roles had been reversed, as Dail struggled with life in the free world. Mumma would take his calls at night as he paced his living room and stared out the blinds for signs of trouble.
The stress of freedom
Dail is still fragile. The last 2-1/2 years have nearly broken him. He has landed a few jobs but lost them, undone by stress and anxiety. He's blown through nearly all of the $750,000 the state paid him for sending an innocent man to prison.
"I don't think people understand how bad I'm floundering," he said. "I don't have an unlimited amount of time to get it together. So much has been wasted. But all I can do is go from day to day."
Last week, Dail tried not to show his distress in front of Taylor's family. He tried to gently coach them about what life might be like for Taylor should the judges turn him loose.
"I've tried to tell them it's not all butterflies and rainbows," Dail said. "It's a whole new fight. It will take a long time for him to get adjusted out there."
Dail hopes to be there by Taylor's side if he begins that journey this week. He's talked of fishing trips with Taylor and his father, Ed Taylor. He has urged Taylor's family to call him anytime if they need his help.
"Maybe I can help him take a shortcut through some of the major obstacles," Dail said.
Dail won't be in court today. He says he can't bear to risk watching what he says would be the criminal justice system failing another man.
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