Men wrongly held for murder get millions, but no apology, from the state

Editor's note: Experience the stories of Floyd Brown and Greg Taylor in the videos at the bottom of this story.

mlocke@newsobserver.com, jneff@newsobserver.comAugust 13, 2013 

This summer, the state and its insurers will pay nearly $12.5 million for missteps that cost two men decades of freedom.

Here’s what Floyd Brown and Greg Taylor won’t get from state leaders: an apology.

This summer, the state Attorney General’s office and its insurers agreed to settle two civil lawsuits against the State Bureau of Investigation for mistakes its agents made in two murder investigations in the 1990s.

Floyd Brown, an Anson County man with an IQ of 50, will receive $7.85 million for 14 years locked away in Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital because he lacked the competency to stand trial for murder. Greg Taylor, a Wake County man exonerated in 2010 for the murder of a woman in Southeast Raleigh, will receive $4.625 million for the 17 years he spent in state prison.

In both cases, misconduct of SBI agents helped keep the two men locked away for years. The state paid a $500,000 deductible in Brown’s case and $100,000 in Taylor’s. Insurers paid the rest.

On Monday, as news of the settlements was announced, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper blamed the mistakes on outdated practices and procedures long since reformed.

Asked Tuesday whether anyone from the state would apologize to the two innocent men, Cooper issued a statement that verged on an admission of wrongdoing but fell short of an apology.

“It’s always wrong when innocent people are jailed for crimes they didn’t commit, no matter who is at fault,” Cooper said in the statement. “The SBI and Crime Lab have learned from these cases and made tremendous improvements to help prevent this and promote justice.”

Mike Klinkosum, a Raleigh lawyer who helped free both Brown and Taylor, said Cooper’s statement is as close as the two will likely get to an apology.

“Maybe I’ve been doing this so long, but no one will take responsibility and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” he said. “This is as good as it gets.”

The money talks

Donald Beskind, a veteran civil litigator and professor at Duke Law School, said apologies are rare in civil settlements and impossible in jury verdicts.

“A jury can’t make someone say they are sorry or flog anyone,” Beskind said. “The only thing a jury can do is make someone write a check.”

Civil lawsuits, Beskind said, offer a poor tool to force reform in agencies where employees have made mistakes.

In 2009, the SBI and its insurers agreed to pay $3.9 million to Alan Gell, a former death row inmate imprisoned eight years for a murder he did not commit.

Gell said he heard nothing, let alone words of apology, from officials involved in his case.

“The million-dollar settlement was the apology,” Gell said. “The insurance companies don’t pay millions unless the state’s done wrong.”

The only physical evidence linking Taylor to the murder of Jacquetta Thomas was a substance on his truck that the SBI agent Duane Deaver reported to be blood, despite performing more sophisticated tests that failed to confirm the substance was blood. Deaver has repeatedly said the practice was standard and widely accepted at the SBI through the 1990s.

‘Just sews things up’

An audit commissioned by Cooper after Taylor’s exoneration found more than 200 cases in which agents inaccurately reported the results of blood analysis. Deaver was fired after the audit and has since appealed his termination.

Greg Taylor wasn’t holding his breath for an apology from the attorney general or anyone at the SBI.

In a mediation meeting for the lawsuit this summer, Taylor got something close: An attorney for one of the companies that insured the SBI and other agencies told Taylor he was sorry for what he’d been through. The simple words meant a great deal to Taylor.

“For me, the settlement just sews things up,” Taylor said. “I’m sure there are still some that still think I had something to do with the murder, and this is just one more thing to say otherwise.”

Brown still grasping news

Floyd Brown’s 1993 murder charge rested on an elaborate six-page confession that SBI agent Mark Isley said he wrote down verbatim in first-person narrative. In 2007, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson freed Brown and dismissed the charges against him after doctors and psychologists said his mental limitations made it impossible for him to have offered such a detailed confession.

During the civil litigation, Isley denied he did anything wrong.

On Monday night, Brown struggled to grasp the news of the outcome of his lawsuit.

Brown, 49, has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. He likes fancy cars and fast food. His guardian, Bernice Harris, did her best to explain the settlement to Brown.

“I told Floyd he’d never have to worry about having money in his pockets ever again,” she said. “He seemed to like that.”

Locke: 919-829-8927

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