The following editorial was published in the Durham, NC Herald-Sun on February 18, 2010.
The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C., on the Innocence Inquiry Commission:
Greg Taylor wasn't an innocent lamb. He was a crack addict who stopped to get high in the wrong place, and he testified that he found Jacquetta Thomas's broken body in a Raleigh cul-de-sac and didn't report it to police.
But he didn't kill her and he didn't deserve to serve 16 years in jail, and it's a huge victory for North Carolina that the Innocence Inquiry Commission freed him.
It wasn't easy. It took years and several humiliating exonerations in capital cases before the General Assembly took the plunge and became the first state to establish, fund and empower an innocence commission. By the time the legislation passed in 2006, Taylor had already served 13 years in jail.
The odds that his case would be selected were also slim. The commission wasn't designed to replace the justice system; instead, it acts as a backstop, hearing only felony cases in which there is credible, verifiable evidence that the defendant is innocent. Then it's up to the defendant to prove his innocence, a perfect inversion of our "innocent until proven guilty" system.
Greg Taylor and the others like him are only half of the equation. The other half are the defendants like Henry Reeves, who was convicted of indecent liberties with a child in 2001. Reeves was the first person whose case made it all the way through the Innocence Commission's investigations, hearings and judicial review. In the end, three judges determined that there was not enough evidence to establish Reeves' innocence.
In establishing the Innocence Inquiry Commission, the North Carolina General Assembly did three very risky things.
First, legislators accepted the overwhelming evidence that the justice system is imperfect and puts an unknown number of innocent people behind bars.
Second, they agreed that the appeals system offers insufficient relief for the wrongfully imprisoned, and established a backstop that could -- and now does -- get some of those people out of jail.
Third, by adding that opportunity, it opened the state to a new class of lawsuits from former inmates whose innocence has been established and vetted by a state-funded panel of judges.
The things we have taken from Greg Taylor can't be restored, but it seems inevitable that some court will end up pondering the question of how much we owe in exchange for 6,149 days of a man's life.
Whatever it is, we ought to pay it, and with good will.
Not just because we owe it to him -- and we do -- but because Greg Taylor is the emblem of North Carolina's restless devotion to justice for all.