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Friday February 3rd

New laws, federal and state safeguards have led to more exonerations

Greg Taylor was exonerated from prison in 2009 after spending nearly 17 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.
Buy Photos Greg Taylor was exonerated from prison in 2009 after spending nearly 17 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

Grimes’ 1988 conviction was based, in part, on 13 hairs found at the crime scene that were determined to be from an African American person.

These hair fragments confirmed Grimes’ guilt despite his alibi.

Greg Taylor, another man exonerated in North Carolina, spent 16 years in prison after his truck was found near a murder site. Initial forensic tests found blood in his truck.

A second test found no blood, but it was never discussed in court. The test results were kept filed away in informal investigation notes.

It wasn’t until the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission reviewed these cases that Grimes and Taylor were exonerated.

“(The commission) led to being able to have those bench notes ... found,” Taylor said.

Grimes and Taylor make up two of 10 individuals freed by the commission — a small number compared to the 933 exonerations across the country in the past 10 years. And exonerations have doubled from 72 in 2011 to 156 in 2015.

Before DNA’s widespread use in the late 1980s, eyewitness misidentification, false or misleading forensic evidence and official misconduct ran rampant in many courts.

Awareness of and concern for the frequent inaccuracy of eyewitness identifications is extensively documented, and UNC School of Government Professor James Drennan said widespread changes in lineups have occurred as a result of this realization.

“Our memory isn’t as good as we think it is,” Drennan said. “We think of our minds as video cameras, when they are really like kaleidoscopes of images thrown on walls.”

North Carolina’s Eyewitness ID Reform Act was signed into law in 2007, putting in place uniform regulations across the state.

The law requires that police ensure victims know it is not necessary for them to choose a suspect from a lineup — eliminating one of the biggest problems researchers have found with the practice.

The American Psychological Association presented research that found informing witnesses they didn’t have to choose a suspect led to fewer false identifications.

While misidentifications contribute to 30 percent of wrongful convictions, according to research from the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations, false or misleading evidence — like false positives and ambiguous forensic science — is another large problem.

North Carolinian Dwayne Dail was charged and convicted for a 1987 rape before DNA testing proved his innocence. During the original trial, an analyst said hair found at the crime scene was microscopically consistent with Dail’s.

Dail spent nearly half his life in prison before new DNA testing was used to prove his innocence.

The Innocence Project, a national public policy organization focused on exoneration, has claimed many forensic techniques that have been in use for years don’t have sufficient scientific backing and yet are still accepted.

The Department of Justice established the National Commission on Forensic Science in 2013 in an effort to improve the reliability of forensic tests, including DNA and other tests like bite marks and hair comparisons that are often contested.

These changes don’t affect another large problem— official misconduct, which plays a role in 51 percent of wrongful convictions.

A widely discussed example of public official misconduct involved a Chicago murder case in which police records were altered to match witness testimony. The testimony was eventually proven false, but the convicted men spent 26 years in prison before their exonerations.

A 2004 N.C. law has also led the way in restricting prosecutorial misconduct. The law requires prosecutors to share files in felony cases in order to cut down on withheld evidence like negative forensic test results.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the recent uptick in exonerations, it makes a difference.

“There’s a lot of people in prison who are innocent who will die there, and I could very easily be one of those people,” Taylor said.


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