Taylor case brings commission renown

Convicts, states contact panel

Staff WriterFebruary 22, 2010 

  • 634 claims of innocence

    97 currently in review

    463 claims rejected

    6 claims in the field investigation stage

    3 claims in the formal inquiry stage, where a convicted person waives all rights and victims are notified

    $372,879 budget for fiscal 2010

    $500,000 federal 18-month grant to supplement state money to be used for DNA cases

— ******

CORRECTION

A front-page story Monday mischaracterized results of tests done on a substance found on the truck of Greg Taylor, a man wrongfully convicted of murder. A 1991 State Bureau Investigation lab test concluded the substance was not human blood.

****** As Greg Taylor finds his way back into a changed world 17 years after being wrongfully convicted of murder, the fledgling state agency that made his freedom possible is adjusting to a different way of life, too.

The phones have been ringing constantly at the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission since it won its historic first case last week. Dozens of e-mail messages have come in to the seven-member staff on behalf of people who think they, too, have been wrongfully convicted.

"This just shows that the process the state created works," Executive Director Kendra Montgomery-Blinn said Friday. "I think we're going to see commissions in other states now."

The Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first of its kind in the country, was created in 2006 after several high-profile cases of wrongful convictions raised questions about the criminal justice system. The wrongfully convicted can appeal their verdicts, but their claims generally are limited to technical problems at the trial level, not claims of innocence. The commission has legal authority and powers to delve into such claims and then put them before a panel of judges that can grant immediate freedom.

"The reason we created this was because we all knew the legal system operates under the presumption of guilt once you're convicted," said Richard Rosen, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor who helped create the commission. "This is a safety valve."

In three and a half years, the commission has received 634 claims of innocence; 463 of them have been rejected. After thorough vetting, the panel has found enough evidence in only three cases to send them before a panel of judges.

"If you're not innocent, you have a lot to lose with our process," Montgomery-Blinn said. "If we uncover claims of guilt, we're going to turn them over, too."

Taylor's case was the first to go to a three-judge panel with the unanimous backing of the commission, an eight-member group that includes a Superior Court judge, a prosecuting attorney, a criminal defense lawyer, a sheriff, a victims' rights advocate, a member of the public and two other discretionary appointments. It also was the first case to result in freedom.

"This was extraordinary; it wasn't clear how this thing would come out," said Jim Coleman, a Duke University law professor and an adviser to one of the campus innocence projects sponsored by the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, which recommended Taylor's case to the commission. "What the judges did is exactly what they should have done."

But Coleman thinks there's room for improvement. Once the commission decides to pass a case to a three-judge panel, Coleman advocates assigning an independent prosecutor - someone who isn't invested in the outcome of the original trial or appeals.

Though the Innocence Inquiry Commission expects a flood of new requests in coming weeks, Montgomery-Blinn said she did not think the number of cases put before the commission or a three-judge panel would increase dramatically.

There are many points in the vetting process when a claim can be dismissed. Less than 2 percent of all claims are accepted for a formal commission inquiry, in which the convict waives all rights, making it possible for defense attorneys to share information that they otherwise would be obligated to keep to themselves.

Claims from people in jail or prison, by law, take priority over those from defendants who have either served their time or are on probation or parole.

Subpoena power

The innocence commission was established as an independent state agency to give it more power. It has the legal authority to subpoena information that other innocence projects cannot always get.

In Taylor's case, the commission obtained old State Bureau of Investigation lab test results that helped win him exoneration.

A jury in 1993 found the one-time drug addict guilty of the 1991 bludgeoning death of Jacquetta Thomas, a prostitute whose body was found on South Blount Street in Raleigh. Prosecutors told jurors that a substance on Taylor's truck was blood. Joseph B. Cheshire V, a Raleigh lawyer who represented Taylor at the hearing last week, said a juror told a newspaper reporter shortly after the conviction that the blood on the truck was instrumental in the jury's decision.

Turns out, though, that SBI lab tests done in 1991 were inconclusive about the substance found on the truck, results not shared with defense lawyers who represented Taylor at his 1993 trial. It was not until the Innocence Inquiry Commission got Taylor's case that those lab test results surfaced.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said immediately after the hearing that had the SBI test results surfaced during the trial that the jury's decision might have been different.

David Rudolf, a defense lawyer with offices in Chapel Hill and Charlotte, was elated by the finding of Taylor's innocence. "People are now willing to accept that police make mistakes, that prosecutors make mistakes, and not everyone in the [prison] system is deservedly there," he said.

The Innocence Inquiry Commission grew out of a study commission set up in 2002 by I. Beverly Lake Jr., the state's chief justice at the time. Several high-profile cases of exoneration had exposed the high volume of post-conviction claims of innocence and the challenges of resolving them.

Other states are looking at North Carolina's fledgling commission as a model. In Florida, some high-profile lawyers are working to set up an Actual Innocence Commission. Lawyers in Chicago and California also have been interested in the commission.

"I must have gotten 20 e-mails about this," said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University law school. "I would hope this would show the value of having this kind of commission. We would hope this would give impetus to establishing innocence commissions in other states."

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919 836-4948

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