Sheehan

Freedom almost missed

Staff WriterMarch 24, 2010 

During the landmark Innocence Inquiry proceedings that ultimately freed Greg Taylor in the 1991 slaying of Jacquetta Thomas, there were plenty of fingers to point. At investigators for tunnelvision. At the state crime lab for selective reporting of results. At Wake prosecutors who retried their own case.

Now the finger has turned back at the Innocence Inquiry Commission itself. By the very people who helped advocate for Taylor's release.

Turns out the commission's staff, in preparing Taylor's case, knew that material taken from Taylor's bumper on the night of the killing tested negative for blood.

This negative blood test ended up as one of the most critical pieces of evidence in a three-judge panel's finding that Taylor was innocent.

But for some reason, the commission staff failed to focus on the negative blood test.

Instead, they zeroed in on another prisoner - Craig Taylor, who claimed he was Thomas' true killer.

It was an exciting development, even though Craig Taylor is mentally ill and has confessed to many crimes.

So, long after the Innocence Inquiry Commission voted unanimously to send the case to the three-judge panel, Taylor's defense team discovered the blood test result - almost purely by chance, said Mike Klinkosum of the Wake public defender's office.

When they finally found the reference in SBI blood specialist Duane Deaver's handwritten notes, it was like a smoking gun, Klinkosum said.

Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, executive director of the commission, was quick to point out that Deaver gave different testimony to the commission and then to the three-judge panel.

The SBI's handling of blood evidence is now under investigation.

But what about the Innocence Inquiry Commission's handling of this case?

Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C.Center on Actual Innocence, and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. have raised concerns - not so much about the innocence inquiry process, but about the work of the innocence staff.

Failing to emphasize the blood evidence reflected "either a lack of understanding or a discomfort with challenging the law enforcement community," Mumma said. "That's concerning because [challenging authority] is part of what the commission is all about."

Montgomery-Blinn is the former assistant district attorney in Durham who acted as a character witness for her former boss, Mike Nifong, in his disbarment hearing after his botched handling of the Duke lacrosse case.

Mumma said she and Lake plan to request a forum with the commission to discuss how the Taylor case was handled - or mishandled.

It would also seem to be a good time for Lake's successor, Chief Justice Sarah Parker, to reconvene the original Commission on Actual Innocence to assess how well the process is working. To see if any broader lessons have been learned.

Not to point any fingers, but there are plenty of questions to go around.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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