A storm of misfortune
Taylor describes the events that led to his conviction as a perfect storm of misfortune.
“Ultimately, I just feel like that if there was a person in power that would look at my case in its totality, they would see I was innocent and do something about it if they had any integrity,” Taylor said. “What I didn’t realize at the time was that there wasn’t anybody like that.”
Taylor was tried and convicted of murder after his truck was found 150 feet away from the dead body of a prostitute. His attorney believed the state’s case was so weak that it would be dismissed, but the case went on.
The state connected blood spots on Taylor’s vehicle back to the victim. However, tests conducted by the state revealed the blood on the truck was not human blood — a fact the state left out of the courtroom and Taylor’s lawyer never received.
After two hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. Taylor’s mouth dropped as he turned to face his family.
“(My lawyer) had the truth on his side, threw it away and at that point the truth became unavailable to the appellate courts,” Taylor said.
He filed two appeals, but both were denied. In an effort to discredit the blood spots on his vehicle, Taylor’s lawyer filed a motion to conduct DNA testing, but it was denied as well. In many states, Taylor would have been out of options.
“The system is not set up for innocent people, and when an innocent person gets caught up in the system, the system doesn’t know how to act,” Taylor said. “An innocent person doesn’t have the same options as a guilty person. I couldn’t take any pleas — there was nobody I could testify against. While I’m claiming my innocence, that’s not what people want to hear.”
“It wasn’t doing anybody any good to be innocent.”
The first innocent man
Taylor filed a claim with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, a nonprofit agency that investigates claims of innocence and recommends legislative reform. His application sat in a stack of more than 900 cases waiting to be read.
Christine Mumma, director of the Center on Actual Innocence, helped write legislation establishing the Innocence Inquiry Commission. Unlike a court of appeals, the commission may review new evidence such as DNA samples and updated testimony. The commission has the authority to exonerate individuals based on proof of innocence.
Mumma heard about Taylor’s case and felt compelled to investigate. The Center on Actual Innocence handled the case for two years before turning it over to the Innocence Inquiry Commission as one of its first cases.
First, the commission’s staff presents the case under review to an eight-member panel, which determines whether the case is strong enough to move on to a three-judge panel. The panel hears the case and determines whether there is “clear and convincing evidence of innocence” to exonerate.
The proof of innocence standard is unique to the Innocence Inquiry Commission.
“It sort of takes the entire judicial process and turns it on its head,” Taylor said. “Rather than the plaintiff proving guilt, the defendant or convict, has to prove innocence.”
Taylor became the first person in U.S. history to be declared legally innocent.
“When that third judge declared him innocent we had proven the success of the Innocence Inquiry Commission process,” Mumma said.
The price of justice
The Innocence Inquiry Commission has received 1664 claims, leading to eight exonerations.
In 2012, the commission received a federal grant of $761,111 to support DNA testing. This grant, which expires at the end of 2015, also pays for the cost of investigations and expert witnesses.
The commission’s executive director, Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, said the future of funding is unknown.
“We will reapply for the federal grant as well, but the federal funds are shrinking and we do not know if we will receive funding again,” Montgomery-Blinn said in an email.
The commission spends an average of $85,000 on DNA testing each year. The state budget covers 10 percent of this cost.
Due to the rising cost of DNA testing, the commission had to cut one of its DNA specialists. Without this funding, Montgomery-Blinn said two additional staff positions will be cut and future DNA testing is in jeopardy.
The commission is asking the N.C. General Assembly to provide an additional $100,000 to pay for DNA testing and experts on staff. The commission’s total state-funded budget is $414,012. With this budget, the commission manages an average of 200 cases per year.
The General Assembly will review the commission’s request this year.
“Unfortunately, with the leadership here now, we are all over the place in terms of our priorities,” said N.C. Rep. Ralph Johnson, D-Guilford. “I just don’t know what it will have to compete against for funding.”
Mumma said the commission was founded on bipartisanship, passing with outspoken Republican support in a Democrat-controlled legislature.
“It shouldn’t be partisan because these are people who never belonged in prison,” said N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick, Jr., D-Durham. “I don’t think there is too high a price for our state to overturn wrongful convictions.”
McKissick said he worries that some senators don’t understand the commission’s purpose.
“Last year a colleague said, ‘I’m tired of all these people getting out of jail,’ and I reminded him, ‘They’re getting released because they’re innocent! They weren’t supposed to be in there to start with!’' he said.
In prison anywhere else
Most states have independent centers set up to investigate claims of innocence, but they only take cases that can be overturned through the appeals process.
“Usually, when an innocent person is convicted, something has happened where there was a violation in courtroom procedure or some constitutional question at play that makes it qualify for an appeal,” said Theresa Newman, associate dean of Duke Law School and board member of the Innocence Network, an association of innocence advocacy organizations.
Newman praised the Innocence Inquiry Commission and said she hopes other states will adopt similar systems.
“It’s a model that is catching on and other states are paying attention, but it’s resource intensive,” Newman said.
While it cannot exonerate based on innocence alone, the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence has led to reforms in preserving biological evidence, exoneree compensation, access to post-conviction forensic testing and interrogation recording.
“The center itself doesn’t mitigate the problems — it identifies them afterwards and corrects them,” Mumma said. “The solutions that could prevent these wrongful convictions would be recording interrogations, changing ID laws, increasing reliability in informant testimony, making sure biological data is preserved and making improvements to the criminal justice system.”
Taylor said more states need to adopt ways to correct wrongful convictions on the basis of innocence.
“If I was in prison in any other state, I would still be in prison,” Taylor said.
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story misquoted Christine Mumma. She said one solution that could prevent wrongful convictions is increasing reliability in informant testimony. The story has been updated to reflect this clarification.