Justice system has made strides, attorneys say
Posted February 18, 2010 8:02 p.m. EST
Updated March 5, 2010 11:47 a.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — Twenty-four hours after a three-judge panel vacated his life-prison sentence, Gregory Taylor was back at the Johnston County Correctional Center to collect his personal belongings.
For Taylor, 47, the trip was definitely different – after spending the last nine years beyond the facility's barbed-wire fence.
"It's a different perspective, that's for sure," he said. "I'm looking at the same fence, but from the other side, it doesn't look familiar at all."
The events of the last day have been a whirlwind of change for Taylor, and they've also led to questions about how the state's legal system – specifically, could Taylor's case happen again?
Raleigh police charged Taylor in 1991 in the death of Jacquetta Thomas, and a jury convicted him of first-degree murder in 1993. Over the years, he exhausted all avenues for appeal.
Last year, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission recommended his case for review, and Wednesday, he was freed after judges found that new evidence was clear and convincing beyond a reasonable doubt that he was innocent.
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby and Taylor's defense attorney, Joseph Cheshire both say the justice system has changed drastically since 1993.
Lawyers and investigators are better trained and there are more laws to protect innocent people from being convicted.
"We've made more strides in North Carolina toward a better criminal justice system than any state in the union," Cheshirle said.
One major advance is the open-file discovery rule, making it mandatory for the state to share evidence with the defense.
"People can't hide the ball as easily as they used to, and it's leveled the playing field," he said.
At Taylor's innocence hearing, it was revealed that during his trial, the State Bureau of Investigation failed to report that a test for blood on Taylor's SUV was negative.
"If this information had been available to a jury back in 1993, we may very well have gotten a different result," Willoughby said. "I think we do better investigations now than we did 15 or 20 years ago."
Now that Taylor is free, there's a good chance another investigation into Thomas' murder is on the horizon.
"I think the police department will go back and review this case and will try to look and see if there's anything they can do that might point toward any other offender," he said.
Cheshire estimates about 7 percent of prison inmates are innocent or have been wrongfully convicted, but he says cases like Taylor's give people hope that there is a path to freedom.