RALEIGH — Gregory Taylor walked into freedom Wednesday with baby steps trained by leg shackles.
He stepped into fame after serving 17 years of a life sentence for murder; three judges declared him, clearly and emphatically, innocent. He was the first man freed by a new process propelled by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first of its kind in the nation.
Taylor, 47, wasted more than half his adult life in prison after what his lawyers declared a reckless rush to judgment by Raleigh police and Wake County prosecutors. Their mistakes cost him 6,149 days. In those, his daughter graduated from college and walked down the wedding aisle unescorted. His grandson, Charles, learned to walk and talk. His sister lost a battle with cancer.
Wednesday, Taylor cried until his horned-rimmed glasses fogged and laughed until his whole body shook.
"Sometimes I'd like to be more angry than I am," Taylor said. "It's not a sustainable emotion. Right now, I'm just the most elated person in the world."
Taylor grinned as he emerged from the courtroom, clumsily walking into a roaring crowd at the Campbell University law school, where the hearing was held. Law students, many of whom watched the hearing from an auditorium not 40 feet from the courtroom, cheered as Taylor emerged, snapping photos with cell phones.
A Wake County jury convicted Taylor in 1993 of murdering Jacquetta Thomas, a woman whose battered body was discovered about 100 yards from a mud-caked truck he abandoned near a cul-de-sac in Southeast Raleigh. Within 12 hours of discovering Thomas' body, Raleigh police charged Taylor and his drug partner, Johnny Beck, with murder.
District Attorney Colon Willoughby fought to keep Taylor in prison. Wednesday morning, Willoughby told judges that Taylor failed to prove his innocence and urged them to not base their decision on how his office prosecuted the case in 1993.
"I believe that in this case, in Greg Taylor's own words, he's overextended his memory. He's testified to things that are not logical, credible or believable," Willoughby told judges before their vote.
Moments after Taylor earned his freedom, Willoughby extended his hand to Taylor and apologized. His assistant Tom Ford, the prosecutor who persuaded a jury to convict Taylor, followed suit, shaking the hand of a man who a week before he accused of lying.
Court odyssey begins
For 17 years, Taylor tried to get the judicial system to correct its wrong. He pursued every court appeal as many times as he could.
He was out of options in 2004 when he dispatched a letter to Christine Mumma, director for the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, a nonprofit that works to secure relief for inmates who are innocent.
It uses law students to help review the cases.
Taylor's plight inspired Mumma in 2006 to help push the legislature to create the truth-seeking agency to review claims of innocence. As she celebrated the creation of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission over dinner with a handful of judges and legislators in 2006, Mumma spent half the evening talking about Taylor's case.
"She was my sanity," Taylor said of Mumma. "She visited me every week, held my hand and told me it was going to be OK."
On Wednesday, their bond was clear. When the judges announced their decision, Taylor kissed Mumma's hand and buckled in sobs.
Taylor's hearing laid bare how North Carolina's criminal justice system can fail to find the truth. A State Bureau of Investigation agent withheld evidence that ruled out the presence of blood on Taylor's truck; jurors had been told dozens of times at the 1993 trial that blood stained Taylor's fender.
A police dog said to have tracked Thomas' scent to Taylor's truck likely signaled the opposite.
A prosecutor secured damning testimony from a prostitute who faced a 10-year prison term; her sentence was cut in half.
And an embezzler whom Taylor may have met in jail relayed to police a concocted, implausible confession from Taylor in the hope of avoiding prison.
"This man was wrongfully convicted by a jury with evidence that was tainted, and we all know it," Joseph Cheshire V, one of Taylor's attorneys, told judges Wednesday.
Taylor is now eligible for $750,000 the state could pay to make up for his lost years. He could waive that payment and bring a civil lawsuit against the state.
On Wednesday afternoon, though, Taylor was all out of fight. He burrowed into relatives' embraces and chatted about how he'd restart a life interrupted.
He studied a menu at 518 West, an Italian restaurant downtown, and joked that he was missing out on Salisbury steak at the Wake County jail. He borrowed a cell phone from Mumma and left a message for Beck to thank him for testifying on his behalf at the hearing. He ribbed his dad, Ed Taylor, about the computer he'd promised to buy him if he ever got freed.
Taylor leaned toward his daughter, Kristen Puryear, 26, and brushed the bangs out of her eyes. She explained the menu, telling him about fancy food he hasn't tasted in two decades. She rattled through the outings she had lined up.
Suddenly, Kristen was 8 years old again, and Taylor was the dad he had meant to be before a drug addiction lured him to the streets that would change his life.
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