Image: Karen Puryear, Greg Taylor
Shawn Rocco  /  AP
Kristen Puryear embraces her father, Greg Taylor, after he was exonerated on murder charges by the N.C. Innocence Commission and set free Wednesday.
updated 2/17/2010 6:42:37 PM ET 2010-02-17T23:42:37

A North Carolina man who insisted he was innocent of murder through more than 16 years in prison was set free Wednesday after a groundbreaking exoneration pressed by the nation's only statewide innocence panel.

Greg Taylor's shackles were removed and he was swept into the arms of his relatives, including a daughter and the son-in-law he met for the first time. Taylor said he was looking forward to a good meal and thrilled that he was no longer considered guilty of murdering a prostitute in 1991.

"To think all these years what this day would be like; 6,149 days and finally the truth has prevailed," said Taylor, 47, after three judges agreed he didn't kill Jacquetta Thomas.

The three judges, appointed by the state's chief justice, heard six days of arguments and testimony at the recommendation of the North Carolina Innocence Commission, the only state-run agency in the country dedicated to proving a convicted person's innocence.

The judges ruled not only that Taylor was not guilty of the beating death of Thomas, but that he proved his innocence after a case that questioned the policies of state investigators and experts whose work put Taylor behind bars.

"Today was a great day for the North Carolina system of justice," defense attorney Joe Cheshire said. "I never doubted this man's innocence."

Sorry for conviction
Unlike a trial, where the prosecution must prove a defendant's guilt, the defense was required to prove Taylor's innocence. The attorneys did that by taking apart almost every aspect of the prosecution's case, from proving there was no blood on Taylor's SUV to discrediting eyewitness testimony.

By the end, only a few prosecution witnesses held fast to their testimony, including a jailhouse informant who said Taylor confessed to him in the crowded jail cell they shared and a woman who said she saw the murder victim with Taylor and his friend, Johnny Beck.

But she also said she had suffered at the time from untreated bipolar disorder and had consumed several 40-ounce beers, a bottle of wine and five rocks of crack cocaine.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, whose office led the charge to keep Taylor behind bars, immediately walked over to Taylor after the verdict.

"I told him I'm very sorry he was convicted," Willoughby said later. "I wish we had had all of this evidence in 1991."

Taylor testified that he and Beck went to a deserted cul-de-sac to smoke crack cocaine. His SUV got stuck in the wooded area, and, as the two men walked out to hitch a ride, they saw what they thought was a body. They didn't call the police.

Weighing evidence
Aside from the scientific evidence and the eyewitness testimony, the strongest point in Taylor's favor was his steadfast refusal to confess. Police and prosecutors — including Assistant District Attorney Tom Ford, who prosecuted Taylor at trial and handled most of the questioning at the hearing — repeatedly offered a reduced sentence if he would testify against Beck. Taylor refused.

The most damning scientific evidence came from an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, who testified that complete blood test results were excluded from lab reports presented at trial. SBI Agent Duane Deaver testified that it was SBI policy to report that evidence showed a chemical indication for the presence of blood even when a follow-up test came back negative.

SBI Director Robin Pendergraft said in a statement Wednesday that Deaver's testimony was false. "The SBI did not then and does not now have a policy to withhold any evidence or testing results," she said.

An SBI manual dated May 25, 1990, advised analysts "to record a description of the evidence sample tested, notes on all tests performed including results, and a final lab report," she said.

North Carolina lawmakers established the innocence commission in 2006 after a series of exonerations shamed the state's justice system. Of the hundreds of cases reviewed by the innocence agency, only three have made it to a hearing before the body's commissioners. Only one other has gone to a three-judge panel, and that was rejected.

The commission is the only agency of its kind that has the power to investigate claims of innocence and put convicts on a path to exoneration. Attorneys for Taylor implored other states to follow suit.

"What can possibly more important to the justice system than the truth?" said one of Taylor's attorneys, Chris Mumma, director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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