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Judges free victim of wrongful conviction in '91;

The International Herald Tribune

Raleigh, NC

Innocence inquiry panel in North Carolina faults evidence and testimony

Acting at the recommendation of a special state innocence commission - the only one of its kind in the United States - a panel of North Carolina judges has ruled that a man was wrongfully convicted of murdering a prostitute in 1991 and freed him after 16 years in prison.

The three-judge panel found ''clear and convincing evidence'' Wednesday that the man, Gregory F. Taylor, was innocent and had been convicted based on flawed evidence and unreliable testimony.

It was the first case won by the commission, which was established in 2006 after a wave of embarrassing wrongful convictions in North Carolina.

Celebrating with friends and family over a shrimp salad at a cafe in downtown Raleigh, Mr. Taylor said he was still in shock after ''6,149 days in prison.''

''This morning, I was laying in a jail cell with a crazy person banging on the wall next to me,'' he said. ''Now I'm sitting at a fancy Italian restaurant talking on a cellphone.''

After the verdict, the Wake County district attorney, C. Colon Willoughby Jr., apologized to Mr. Taylor.

''I told him I'm very sorry he was convicted,'' Mr. Willoughby told The Associated Press. ''I wish we had had all of this evidence in 1991.''

The eight-member North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission considers claims of innocence from convicts or anyone else with pertinent information. It has reviewed hundreds of claims by prisoners and brought only three to a hearing. If the commission agrees that a claim has merit, it refers cases to a three-judge panel, which has happened only once except for Mr. Taylor's case, and the argument in the other case was rejected.

In most U.S. states, convictions are usually overturned only by governors and pardon boards, or occasionally by judicial review. Inmate advocates used the ruling for Mr. Taylor to renew their call for other states to create commissions to investigate claims of innocence, even years after ordinary statutes of limitation have expired.

''North Carolina's commission is an important model for the adjudication of innocence claims,'' said Barry C. Scheck, director of the Innocence Project in New York. ''In the American court system, there are normally procedural bars that get in the way of litigating whether someone is innocent or not.''

Much attention in America has been focused on using DNA to overturn wrongful convictions, said Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. But 90 percent of criminal cases, like Mr. Taylor's, do not involve any DNA evidence.

Mr. Taylor, 47, has always maintained that he did not murder Jacquetta Thomas, whose battered body was discovered in a cul-de-sac in Raleigh. He testified that he found the body while taking drugs with a friend but did not report it to the police.

Defense lawyers argued that prosecutors misrepresented evidence against Mr. Taylor, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1993. They said that stains on his truck turned out to not have been human blood, and that witnesses were later proved to have described scenarios that could not have happened.

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