Raleigh, N.C. — A Cary man who spent nearly two decades in prison on a first-degree murder conviction walked away from a courtroom Wednesday a free man after a three-judge panel decided he was convicted of a crime he didn't commit.
"It's unbelievable," Gregory Taylor, 47, said, encircled by family, friends and media. "I mean, you think all these years what this day would be like – 6,149 days, and finally the truth has prevailed."
Taylor was convicted in April 1993 in the 1991 death of Jacquetta Thomas, a prostitute found dead at the end of a Raleigh cul-de-sac.
Taylor had exhausted all avenues of appeals when the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission reviewed his case and decided in September that it merited a review before the special panel.
"I feel like I'm dreaming," Taylor's daughter, Kristen Puryear, 26, said.
"She was 9 years old when I went to prison," Taylor said, embracing her for one of the first times as a free man. "I missed her 10th birthday, I missed her 16th birthday. … I missed her marriage. I missed the birth of my grandson. Now all of that's returned."
"And I'm taking him home," Puryear said.
For six days, Taylor's attorneys argued there were never any physical links between Thomas and Taylor and that despite investigators' claim of blood on Taylor's Nissan Pathfinder, there was no evidence connecting the two.
They wrapped up Wednesday morning with closing arguments in which Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said the evidence presented in support of Taylor wasn't logical, credible or believable. (Read more about the closing arguments.)
"I did not know what to expect," Willoughby said of the judges' decision. "I felt like it was our responsibility to present the evidence and to allow the three-judge panel to make their decision and do what they found the evidence showed."
In asking the judges to free Taylor, defense attorney Joseph Cheshire urged them to undo a wrong and to help assure the public that the judicial system is changing to help ensure it does not happen again.
"Out of tragedy and sadness can actually come a better world," Cheshire said. "Nothing makes our system better than the public acknowledgment that mistakes have been made."
'Innocence points out injustice'
Wednesday's ruling marks the first in the state's history in which a prisoner has been exonerated because of the involvement of the Innocence Commission – the only state-run agency in the country that investigates post-conviction claims of innocence.
Taylor's case is the second case in the commission's four-year history that has gone up for an evidentiary hearing where only new evidence is considered. As of January, the commission has reviewed 634 cases, 463 of which were rejected – the others are in various stages of review or have been closed.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Cheshire credited the agency and the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence for their attention to the case and for finding inconsistencies with evidence and testimony from Taylor's trial.
"This is one of those fantastic days," he said. "We should all look at this day as a positive day for the state of North Carolina. No innocent, wrongfully accused person should ever have to spend a day in prison."
Gov. Beverly Perdue described the commission as setting "a new standard of jurisprudence in America."
"I believe in this Innocence Commission, and I believe the ruling today shows bad things can happen, even in the finest of systems," she said.
Joining the likes of Dwayne Dail and Darryl Hunt – both men were wrongly convicted of separate crimes and each freed after spending 18 years in prison – Taylor said he hopes to do work to help other people in situations similar to his.
"This is not just about innocent people, this is about injustice," Taylor said. "Innocence points out injustice."
'It is just not over ... Now what?'
Although Taylor's innocence has been a focus of prosecutors and defense attorneys over the course of years, Sierra Pharr, Thomas' daughter, doesn’t want people to forget her mother.
"It makes us feel, as far as our mom's case, 'Who really cares?'" said Pharr, who was 5 years old when Thomas was killed.
"The fact that someone who gave birth to you was taken from you as horrible and tragic as she was, it hurts," she said.
With Taylor now free, all she wants to know is who killed her mother.
Raleigh police declined to comment on the court's decision Wednesday evening or the status of the case but urged anyone with information to come forward.
"It is just not over," Pharr said. "There is a lot of questions. Where is this person? Who did it? Now what?"