Nation's 1st innocence panel faces crucial test

AP News
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Posted: Dec 08, 2009 4:01 PM

After North Carolina was forced to release a series of wrongly convicted people from prisons early in the decade, leaders established a pioneering agency to swiftly assess claims of innocence.

Three years later, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission has yet to free anyone, and its latest push for an exoneration in an 18-year-old murder case is bringing harsh criticism following bizarre claims from a key witness. Experts and justice reform advocates wonder whether similar efforts in other states will be a tough sell without any North Carolina cases to point to as successes.

"Public opinion, which initially might favor a state agency that tries to get convictions right, may lose patience when they find that there have been hundreds of investigations, none of which has ended in a reversal," said Jack Levin, a criminology professor at Northeastern University.

North Carolina remains the only state with a government agency solely dedicated to verifying claims of innocence. The commission's five-person staff has waded through hundreds of files and so far moved only one other case to a panel of judges, who denied an exoneration.

Such time-consuming work has given pause to several other states as they search for the best ways to cleanse their systems of wrongful convictions stemming from now-outdated methods of gathering and analyzing evidence. In Texas, officials are assessing the causes of wrongful convictions. Lawmakers in Ohio are considering requiring videotaped interrogations, double-blind photo lineups and DNA preservation.

"North Carolina's setting the stage, and we're all just kind of waiting to see how it turns out," said Natalie Roetzel, executive director of the nonprofit Innocence Project of Texas.

The commission's latest case involves Craig Taylor, who is serving a minimum of six years in prison as a habitual felon. He says he's the real culprit in the 1991 beating death of 26-year-old Jacquetta Thomas, whose body was found on a Raleigh street in September 1991; another man, Greg Taylor, who is not related, was convicted and is serving time for her slaying.

Colon Willoughby, the district attorney whose murder case is being questioned, said the confession is shaky because Craig Taylor has made a habit of admitting to killings, some of which he could not have committed. In the past four months, he's confessed to dozens, even telling an Associated Press reporter that he killed prostitutes and drug-dealing rivals while dumping some bodies in the Chesapeake Bay for sharks to eat.

"The only way that I can clean and purify my soul, and get right with God, is I have to come forward," Taylor said, his elbows resting next to a Bible on a table at the Scotland Correctional Institute in Laurinburg.

Attorneys for Greg Taylor, 47, contend that all the evidence that put him behind bars has been discredited. He has maintained his innocence, contending he was smoking crack and saw the victim's body but had nothing to do with her death. The testimony of a prostitute and jailhouse snitch, along with a blood sample on his vehicle, have been called into question. Tests on DNA on and around Thomas' body were inconclusive.

Even without Craig Taylor's confession, the other evidence against Greg Taylor is so flawed that it proves authorities were too eager to try him, defense attorney Joe Cheshire said. "It's clear that he is an innocent man," Cheshire said.

Willoughby, the prosecutor, said it's the innocence commission that is showing "a rush to judgment."

With a budget of $360,000, the innocence commission seeks to bring credible claims of innocence before an eight-member panel that includes a judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney and a victim's advocate. That group can send cases to a three-judge panel to decide whether someone goes free.

Most of the claims it has reviewed have been rejected for a variety of reasons: no reliable evidence to support the claim, because a person initially pleaded guilty or sometimes because investigators found evidence the initial conviction was correct.

The commission voted unanimously in September for judges to reconsider Greg Taylor's conviction after Craig Taylor, one of the victim's former acquaintances, confessed. The case is scheduled for a hearing in February.

In interviews with innocence commission staff, Craig Taylor initially said he shot the woman.

"You and I both know that Jacquetta Thomas didn't die from two gunshot wounds to the head," the interviewing investigator responded.

Taylor later provided accurate details, discussing how Thomas was beaten with a bat, stabbed with a small knife and partially disrobed.

"At first I tried to give the investigator the run-around, but she would never quit," Taylor told the AP. "She kept coming back, kept coming back. So I decided, 'OK, she deserves the truth, and this man here deserves to be free.'"

Taylor said he grew jealous after seeing Thomas in the car with another man. He also said he fatally shot four women in New York, Miami and Raleigh. Police in those locales either could not find cases similar to what he told the AP, or declined to look. Taylor also told the FBI in September that he killed three men in Washington in 1986, but investigators found no record of those killings.

The head of the innocence agency said it learned about most of Craig Taylor's confessions only after the agency pushed for Greg Taylor's exoneration. She said officials went to great lengths to determine Craig Taylor's credibility, getting court orders to gather information from several agencies, including Willoughby's office, that brought back signs of just two attempted confessions from a brief and unexplained prison report in 1996.

One of those confessions came from a letter he wrote in July to television show "Unsolved Mysteries" in which he said he's a criminal nicknamed "Ninja" who has committed 65 murders. Willoughby provided a copy of that letter in a court filing in October, more than a month after the commission voted to move Taylor's case forward.

"Is it relevant information? Yes," said commission executive director Kendra Montgomery-Blinn. "Do we wish we knew about it? Yes."