Saunders: Students of law educated

Staff WriterMarch 17, 2011 

Oh, hell, yeah. The two dudes walking along a darkened South Blount Street on Sept. 25, 1991 thought about calling the cops, alerting them that a dead body was in a ditch. Who wouldn't?

Then they thought better of it. "We debated whether to call the cops," Greg Taylor told me Wednesday, after he'd kept a standing-room crowd of about a hundred UNC law school students and professors captivated with tales of a Dostoevskian judicial nightmare that kept him in prison 17 years.

"But Johnny knew the streets and knew what would happen if we did. He said 'The best thing you can do is forget you looked in that direction,' " Taylor said of his co-defendant, Johnny Beck, against whom charges were dropped.

So they kept walking.

"We were high, I was driving without a license and we had drugs on us," Taylor said by way of explanation. "I rationalized to myself that when I came back the next day to get my truck" - which had gotten stuck in a ditch - "that I'd call the cops."

He didn't have to. Raleigh police were already on the scene, CSI-ing all over the place, when Taylor returned. They'd discovered the body of Jacquetta Thomas, as well as Taylor's white Nissan Pathfinder.

His orderly life - if you discount his occasional forays onto the dark side for crack - was pretty much over right then for the next 17 years. Before his arrest, Taylor said, "I'd been married to a girl I began dating in high school. I had an 8-year-old daughter, a career in telecommunications, a home in Cary, two cats and a dog.

"From that point on, I ceased to be," he told the rapt audience.

"In hindsight, I see where I would've been a suspect," Taylor said. "Once they realized I was innocent, though, they should've let me go. ... No body wanted to hear anything I said."

Erin Edwards, a third-year law school student at UNC who plans to represent children, said that contention of Taylor's resonates most with her. "When I become a lawyer, that's what I'll remember. When your client says he's innocent, we should pay more attention to it."

Some of the future barristers shook their heads in disbelief when Taylor told how his wife and he called his attorney the weekend before the lawyer was to make his closing arguments - "the most important day of my life," Taylor called it.

What'd his attorney say? "He said he was too busy working in his yard."

Fortunately for Taylor and for justice, Christine Mumma was not working in her yard. As head of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, Mumma receives hundreds of entreaties from inmates protesting their innocence. It's impossible to investigate all of their claims, Mumma said when I spoke with her after Taylor's presentation. So what was it about Taylor's letters that ignited a spark?

"If I had to pick one thing, it's that you had two people who wouldn't flip on each other" in order to get out, she said of Taylor and Beck. "That's very unusual in a brutal case like this if they'd been guilty."

Taylor, looking more like a law school student in a Carolina blue Oxford button-down shirt and khakis, had ample opportunity to rat out Beck and go free, Mumma said. "During his interrogation, before his trial, at his trial, after he was sentenced to life, after he'd spent three years in prison, had been divorced by his wife, had not seen his daughter. Every time he came back with the same response: 'I will not lie. I will stand for the truth until I die.' "

There was, Taylor admitted, one point where he almost wished he had copped a plea. "I was offered a plea deal for time served and turned it down," he recalled. But when he saw what was for dinner in the joint that night, he said, "I started thinking maybe I should've took it."

Now, Taylor can eat what he wants, when he wants. "The worst day out here," he told the future lawyers and prosecutors, "is better than the best day in there."

Bad lawyering

What would he have done differently that night? I asked. "Stayed home," he laughed. He called it "a perfect storm of bad luck" that led him to prison - among other things, a stuck truck, a disbarred lawyer and another who seemed incompetent or unconnected, overzealous prosecutors who cared not one whit about the truth.

"Through all those years after high school, I'd sort of clung onto old high school ways," Taylor said. "I wish I had grown up earlier. I was what I was."

What he was not, though, was a killer.

Although Raleigh's top cop, Harry Dolan, eventually conceded that Taylor was "innocent" of Jacquetta Thomas' death, police sought Taylor's clothing for DNA even after the Innocence Commission unanimously proclaimed his innocence.

Taylor still feels that the police think he did it. "To this day, I'm not sure the investigation has ever taken a different turn."

In a statement, Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue said, "Based upon the decision rendered in February 2010, the Raleigh Police Department continues to undertake a full review of the Jacquetta Thomas homicide. Detectives have worked diligently, pursuing all appropriate investigative options and following up on every lead."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Taylor's innocence. But after 17 years, he'll take it. or 919-836-2811

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