RALEIGH — When Gregory Taylor walked out of the courtroom Wednesday afternoon, free after nearly two decades, three men who had a good inkling of what he was going through waited by the third-floor elevator.
Darryl Hunt was the first to step forward with outstretched arms. Hunt, of Winston-Salem, spent 191/2 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted in 1984 of raping and murdering a young newspaper copy editor. DNA evidence exonerated him.
The next hug came from Joseph Abbitt of Forsyth County, who spent 14 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape, burglary and kidnapping before DNA evidence exonerated him.
Then came Dwayne Dail, who lost half his life in prison before DNA tests confirmed his story that someone else, not he, should be behind bars for raping a 12-year-old girl.
"We're going to be here for him," Abbitt said.
"We can help him," Hunt said.
The three exonerated men who waited by the elevator are part of a select group who have benefited from the advances of science in the criminal justice system.
Taylor now joins them, though by a means unique in the country. North Carolina is the first state to create an Innocence Inquiry Commission, which reviewed his case, leading to Wednesday's decision. Juries render verdicts of "not guilty" when there is reasonable doubt about a case, but there is no option to find someone "innocent."
"I have been told this is the first time in the history of the United States that a body has found a man innocent," said Joseph B. Cheshire V, a Raleigh lawyer who represented Taylor.
The system worked
Hunt, Abbitt and Dail watched the judges render their verdict from a Campbell University law school classroom, where an overflow of family, law students and others watched the proceedings on video screens.
Hunt, who has spent his time out of prison trying to help ex-convicts adjust to life outside the confines of a cell, and Abbitt traveled together to Raleigh from Forsyth County. While judges deliberated Taylor's fate, they hugged Taylor's father, Ed, and mother, Martine Strickland. They warned of tough times ahead and offered their phone numbers.
Then, as the moment of truth approached, Hunt and Abbitt bowed their heads in prayer when Judge Howard Manning started to explain what had happened during the past week.
"I was sitting right there with him," Hunt said, recalling his own moment before a long-awaited freedom.
Five minutes later, when Manning announced his finding of innocence, applause broke the edgy silence, and onlookers quietly wept. Tears of joy and relief streaked Hunt's face.
Dail was more boisterous.
"Was that not incredible?" Dail repeated over and over. "The system actually worked."
Dail, who wore a bright green T-shirt with "Free Greg Taylor" on the front, already is planning a fishing trip with Taylor in coming weeks.
"Luckily I do not have to go through this completely blind," Taylor told news crews, family members and others shortly after the hallway encounter. "They know what I'm going through right now. They know what I'll be going through."
Staff writer Mandy Locke contributed to this report.
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