NEWTON, N.C. — A three-judge panel will hear the innocence claims of a Hickory man who is out on parole after serving almost 24 years of a life sentence for a rape conviction.
The hearing for Willie Grimes, 66, begins Monday at the Catawba County courthouse in Newton.
In April, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission found that enough credible evidence exists to refer Grimes' case to the special judicial panel, which consists of Superior Court judges David Lee, from Union County, Carl Fox, of Orange and Chatham counties, and Sharon Barrett, from Buncombe County.
They will decide if Grimes should be declared innocent.
Grimes was sentenced to life behind bars in July 1988 after a jury found him guilty of two counts of first-degree rape in the October 1987 assault of a 69-year-old Hickory woman. He was also sentenced to nine additional years for one count of second-degree kidnapping.
He was released on parole in May under a parole program available to inmates convicted of crimes before 1994
Grimes has always maintained his innocence, even refusing to participate in prison programs that could have helped him reduce his sentence.
Among the physical evidence presented to the commission for its review were fingerprints found on bananas in the victim's home. The victim, who has since died, told investigators that her attacker took fruit from a bowl in the kitchen of her apartment before he left. Investigators found banana peels outside the house and fruit that had been moved from the bowl and left on the kitchen table
An analyst testified before the innocence commission that the fingerprints matched a different man, who had a lengthy criminal record of misdemeanors, including assault on a female. That man is living at a nursing home in Lenoir.
Other than the fingerprints, all other physical evidence in the case has inexplicably disappeared even though no one has found any court order to destroy it.
The Hickory Police Department found the fingerprint cards after the commission began investigating.
Three people have been cleared of crimes as a result of the commission's work.
Sentenced to life in prison for the 1991 beating death of a Raleigh woman, Greg Taylor was the first.
A judicial panel unanimously decided in 2010 that there was clear and convincing evidence to prove he did not commit the crime.
The General Assembly established the Innocence Commission in 2007 to not only examine cases but also to study how wrongful convictions can be avoided. It is the only state agency in the United States dedicated to considering wrongful convictions.