Local News

Convicted rapist maintains innocence in 1987 case

Posted April 3, 2012 11:46 a.m. EDT
Updated April 3, 2012 5:49 p.m. EDT

— A Hickory man serving a life sentence in prison for a rape he says he didn't commit testified Tuesday before a special state panel that will decide whether his conviction should be reconsidered.

Willie J. Grimes, 65, told the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that he had no idea why police wanted to arrest him in the fall of 1987 and that he offered to take a lie detector test when he found out he was the suspect in the rape of a 69-year-old woman.

But police didn't take him up on the offer.

Grimes said he also wanted police to collect hair samples from him for testing against a rape kit.

"I knew I was innocent, and I knew that if they had something, mine wouldn't match whatever they had, because I didn't do anything," he said.

Grimes was convicted less than a year later on two counts of first-degree rape and one count of second-degree kidnapping in the Oct. 24, 1987, crime. He is serving his sentence at Gaston Correctional Center, a minimum security prison in Dallas, N.C.

The eight-member panel of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers and other individuals reviews claims of innocence from convicted criminals and considers new, credible evidence that might justify a new verdict.

If it determines that Grimes' case merits further review, it will refer it to a three-judge panel to decide whether his conviction should be overturned.

Grimes told the Innocence Commission that he had met the victim only once. It was a month before the crime when he had asked to use her phone to report a disturbance involving a man named Albert Lindsay Turner at the home of his friend, who was the victim's neighbor.

But she never allowed him in the house and called police for him, Grimes said.

He said he didn't know she had been raped until his arrest. That afternoon, he returned home from work to learn that police were looking for him. He asked his girlfriend take him to the Hickory police station to find out why.

"I didn't have any idea, because I knew I didn't do anything," he said. "That's the reason I went up there – to find out."

Investigators never tried to talk to him after they arrested him. He told commissioners that, if they had, he would have cooperated.

A State Bureau of Investigation analyst testified Monday that fingerprints on a banana matched Turner, now 65, who has a long criminal record, with several convictions of assault on a female as well as assault with a deadly weapon and felony breaking and entering.

Also at issue in the case is the victim's identification of Grimes. She initially identified him in a photo line-up but later on in court was indecisive about who he was. On a third occasion, she identified Grimes' attorney as her attacker, the attorney testified Monday.

Several people also testified in Grimes' trial that they saw him before, during and after the time of the attack and that he could not have committed the crime.

Investigators did find a hair that was "microscopically consistent" with Grimes', Troy Hamlin, a former hairs analyst for the state, testified Tuesday.

But he said he couldn't say for certain that the hair – the only piece of physical evidence linking Grimes to the crime – matched him.

Hair science has changed drastically since the advent of DNA technology, Hamlin said, and hair analysis is now used as a screening technique before DNA analysis – the only way to prove identity.

Max Houck, an expert in microscopic hair comparison, testified that he would have likely recommended to prosecutors not to use the hair if there were no strong circumstantial evidence in the case.

Today, he said, he would recommend a microscopic examination and then have DNA testing on it.

But the hair cannot be tested again. All of the evidence, with the exception of the fingerprints on the banana, was inexplicably destroyed several years after the trial, a staff attorney investigating the case for the Innocence Commission said.

The Innocence Commission is expected to wrap up the hearing on Wednesday. That's also when it could decide if Grimes' case should go passed along for a judicial review.