September 2, 2009
State panel believes jailed man is innocent
Gregory Taylor weeps at news of another man's confession.
BY MANDY LOCKE, Staff Writer
RALEIGH - A pioneering state commission was Gregory Taylor's only hope at a chance of dying a free man.
In a letter he sent commission investigator Sharon Stellato after he confessed, Craig Taylor wrote, "Tell Greg that I'm very sorry that he had to spend 16 years in prison for a crime he's never committed. I can't make up for the 16 years he's lost, but thanks to my confession he has a new start on life."
A long fight
Taylor lost much over the years. His wife, Becky Taylor, eventually divorced him when his attempts at freedom failed. His daughter, Kristen Puryear, was in the fifth grade when her father was arrested. She has since married and had a child of her own.
Gregory Taylor fought since the start to overturn his conviction. He exhausted every option, appealing four times for relief to state and federal courts. In 2003, he asked a Wake County judge to retest any crime scene evidence with new DNA technology. Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby resisted the request; Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens denied Taylor's request without a hearing.
Before the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission was created in 2004, the state's courts had no way of dealing with claims of innocence. Appeals are limited to very specific, technical problems during trial or the investigation.
With the commission's ruling, Taylor and the state's criminal justice system have stepped into new territory. North Carolina is the only state to establish an independent group to examine claims of innocence. This is its third case; neither of the first two ended in exoneration.
Wiping away tears
Taylor's family watched every moment of the commission's hearing. They craned their necks and brushed away tears as an investigator read Craig Taylor's confession. They wept again when commissioners watched a video recording of Gregory Taylor being told another man admitted to the murder.
In the video, Gregory Taylor's face fell into his hands and he sobbed, saying, "This is the first time in 20 years I'll get a good night's sleep."
Taylor has proclaimed his innocence since the day his SUV got stuck in the mud near Thomas' naked, battered body. He and another man, Johnny Beck, had been roaming Southeast Raleigh that night, buying and smoking crack cocaine. They pulled into a dimly lit cul-de-sac to smoke more drugs when they saw Thomas' body. Taylor left his stuck truck and never alerted anyone about Thomas' body.
Police were immediately suspicious. Another prostitute told investigators that Gregory Taylor and Beck had hung out with Thomas that night. A jailhouse snitch testified at trial that Gregory Taylor confessed to slashing her throat.
The commission investigator tracked down that prostitute, now a grandmother in Johnston County. They found the jailhouse snitch, too, now an unemployed truck driver in New Bern. Both their stories sounded shaky this week, nearly two decades later.
For the moment, Gregory Taylor's fate is still in limbo. A panel of three judges to be appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court will be asked to hold a hearing and determine whether Taylor is innocent.
It's also possible that Willoughby, the district attorney, could ask a judge to simply vacate the conviction against Taylor and order his release. Willoughby has yet to receive any information about the commission's investigation and said he will begin a review as soon as he does.
"We'll see if there's evidence that shows innocence," he said. "If we don't, we'll let the three-judge panel decide."
Confession adds up
The future of Craig Taylor, the professed killer locked up at another state prison, is unknown. Wake County investigators could charge him with murder. The commission is referring new evidence on Craig Taylor to Willoughby and the Raleigh police.
On Friday, a crime scene expert testified that Craig Taylor's confession matched the details of the crime. A medical examiner concurred. Another expert, a professor at Northwestern Law School who specializes in false confessions, said that Craig Taylor's admission seemed believable.
Willoughby, who didn't attend the hearing, said he wasn't so sure.
"He's been described to us as a drug lunatic who would say anything," he said.
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