I nearly wept with joy when I heard that Greg Taylor and Floyd Brown would receive a combined $12 million as compensation for the years they spent incarcerated because of false evidence concocted by the state.
Generous financial compensation is the least our state can do after stealing 31 years of these men’s lives, depriving Taylor of the chance to raise his daughter and Brown the privilege of burying his mother.
However, I fear our state doesn’t realize that sending checks should be only the start of North Carolina’s penance for the crimes committed against these men.
The true reparation for these wrongs would be to create a system that ensures such injustices won’t happen again. We are a long way from achieving that goal, when even the SBI officer who wrote a blatantly false confession for Brown, whose IQ is 50, has not been disciplined.
We must remember that these are not isolated cases. Floyd Brown and Greg Taylor are only two among many who have been victimized by a justice system in which people can be sent to prison based on manufactured evidence and have their legitimate claims of innocence ignored for years.
According to the National Exoneration Registry, 27 imprisoned men have been exonerated in North Carolina since 1991. Five were on death row, and some spent more than a decade awaiting their executions before their innocence was discovered.
Just this month, Larry Lamb was released after spending 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. When a judge granted a new trial, prosecutors dropped charges against him, and he was sent home with little fanfare – almost as if these types of mistakes have become routine in North Carolina.
Prosecutors seemed to feel no need to explain to the public what had gone wrong in Lamb’s case or how they would prevent it from happening again. Shouldn’t someone have to explain why Lamb remained in prison for five years after the key witness against him recanted and his co-defendant, Levon “Bo” Jones, was released from death row?
In case after case, we have seen SBI agents providing false evidence, prosecutors secretly promising witnesses rewards in exchange for incriminating testimony, police hiding evidence of suspects’ innocence. There are many honest and hardworking law enforcement officers, but we stain them all when we do not condemn dishonesty and sloppy work.
Once the innocent are convicted, they often wait years for evidence of their innocence to be considered by the courts. Darryl Hunt remained in prison 10 years after DNA tests showed he was not the perpetrator of a 1985 rape and murder that stunned Winston-Salem.
Just this year, Joseph Sledge received the results of DNA tests he asked for 20 years ago. Despite the fact that the results corroborated his innocence and that a key witness against him recanted, Sledge remains imprisoned for a 1976 double murder in Bladen County.
In many other cases, DNA testing can never be performed because the evidence has been lost. DNA is available in fewer than 10 percent of criminal cases.
These kinds of wrongs cannot be made right even by the most generous cash settlements. The people of North Carolina should demand a justice system that holds itself accountable and seeks to correct its mistakes quickly and efficiently – and refuse to accept one that writes checks to the wrongly convicted simply so it can get back to business as usual.
Julie Linehan of Durham is a retired criminal defense attorney and a member of the Task Force to Abolish the Death Penalty at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.