Greg Taylor took a deep breath Thursday and walked back into the prison he called home for the past nine years.
He stared at the barbed-wire fences surrounding Johnston Correctional Institute and panicked.
"Greg, I'm not leaving you here this time. I promise," whispered Christine Mumma, the lawyer who helped him win his exoneration from a wrongful murder conviction the day before.
The Department of Correction owed Taylor $45 and a stack of certificates meant to help him navigate the free world. He collected a transcript tallying the community college classes he took in prison, a list of county agencies that could help him apply for a job, a fresh Social Security card so he could apply for a driver's license. It's all Taylor cared to carry from his old life.
"This is no place to be. No place to waste your life," Taylor said, shaking his head.
On his first full day of freedom after a panel of judges reversed the 1993 conviction, Taylor tried to shed the remnants of his former life. He hit the mall, trading in his prison-issued, horn-rimmed glasses for a snazzy pair of brand-name wire frames. He took a shower without his prison-issued shower shoes, behind the privacy of a curtain.
Taylor devoured a peach protein shake at his son-in-law's gym, desperate to try the concoction he'd read about in fitness magazines for a decade. Taylor fed sliced strawberries to his grandson, Charles, and laughed as the toddler chanted his new name: "G-Daddy." He threw out his khakis and white T-shirts and slipped on blue jeans.
"I've got to get rid of anything that says 'penitentiary,'" Taylor said.
It was a day of simple things.
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Taylor was convicted of murdering Jacquetta Thomas, a woman he had never met. He swore his innocence from the start, but every appeal failed. Taylor got a break last year, when a novel fact-finding agency called the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission recommended his case to a three-judge panel for further review. On Wednesday, those judges declared him innocent and set him free. He was the first prisoner in the nation to earn his freedom through such a process.
Taylor's exoneration brought celebrity. On Thursday, the Triangle's version of the paparazzi tracked his every move. A bank of cameras trailed him to the eye doctor, the camera store and even the food court at the Streets at Southpoint mall in Durham.
Strangers greeted him with awe. Men at the gym he visited with son-in-law Charles Puryear slapped him on the back. Shoppers offered a handshake and wished him a happy future.
"Are people always this nice out here?" Taylor asked his daughter, Kristen Puryear, as they stepped onto an elevator at the mall. "I've still got the prison crust; I'm expecting people to be rude."
At LensCrafters, shopper Elaine Babiss of Chapel Hill teared up and told Taylor that he made her day. He tried on his new glasses and turned to her for an opinion.
"You are darling, absolutely darling," Babiss proclaimed.
Though Kristen Puryear and her son helped guide Taylor through the day, Mumma was at the helm. Wednesday's hard-charging lawyer became Thursday's mother hen.
She directed his transformation and laid down her credit card to get him started with glasses and a camera. Taylor embraced his dependence.
"I want to be ordered around. I'm a poor decision-maker right now," he said. "I don't know what I want except that I do not want to be back [in prison]."
In some ways, prison brought Taylor gifts. He found the solitude to read and study. By his count, he has read 833 books since 1994. In 2000, he discovered weightlifting and maintains a rigid diet. He's now a muscular 180 pounds, earned from an hour each day working the weight pile at Johnston Correctional. He gently scolded his daughter for keeping soda in the house.
Prison also forced sobriety; a drug addiction ravaged Taylor before he landed in prison. Looking back, he's sure it is what sent him there. If it weren't for craving crack cocaine the night of Sept. 25, 1991, he wouldn't have been anywhere near Thomas, and police wouldn't have fingered him for her murder.
Taylor says he has been without booze and crack cocaine so long he's lost his hunger for them.
"I won't even take an aspirin," he said. "I don't want anything like that to change my body."
Taylor relaxed as Mumma said it was time to leave Johnston Correctional. He hugged two correctional officers and signed a souvenir newspaper for one.
Mumma then drove him to Cary to bid another farewell.
At dusk, he stood in the yard of the house he once shared with Kristen and his ex-wife in 1991. He had spent 17 years longing for that house, his family, his dog. But, on Thursday, he felt at peace with the life he had to leave behind.
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