Reporting from Raleigh, N.C. — Seventeen years ago, Gregory Flynt Taylor was a crack cocaine abuser convicted of killing a prostitute during a late-night prowl for drugs.
On Wednesday, Taylor was a free man, the first convicted felon in U.S. history to be exonerated by a state-mandated innocence commission.
A three-judge panel unanimously ruled that Taylor, 47, had been wrongly convicted in 1993 of murdering Jacquetta Thomas. The judges heard six days of testimony under a 2006 state law that created the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission to investigate claims of innocence by convicted felons.
The commission, which has subpoena power, is the only such agency in the country, although other states are considering similar bodies. The commission was established after several felons in the state were exonerated following lengthy court appeals.
Taylor, dressed in a black suit, struggled to hold back tears as family members and supporters erupted in cheers after the panel announced its decision. A sheriff's deputy removed leg shackles and Taylor, his narrow face flushed, embraced his lawyers and parents.
"This is unbelievable," Taylor shouted as supporters mobbed him inside a law school courtroom. "Six thousand, one hundred and forty-nine days -- and finally the truth has prevailed."
A jury convicted Taylor after prosecutors said blood was found on the SUV he was driving the night Thomas was beaten to death in Raleigh in 1991. But testimony at the commission hearing last week revealed that a follow-up test -- showing that no blood was on the vehicle -- was never passed on to the court.
The hearing also exposed flaws in the state's case involving eyewitness testimony and allegations by a jailhouse snitch who implicated Taylor in the killing.
Taylor's case was only the second to reach the three-judge panel, which is appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. The first case, in 2008, was unsuccessful. The commission has reviewed 634 cases, but only three have received a full hearing by the body's commissioners.
The commission was formed after a state legal advisory body concluded that the appeals process for wrongful conviction claims was "delayed, lengthy, costly, and damaging to the public's confidence in its justice system."
The commission is charged with providing an independent fact-finding forum for credible claims of innocence.
"This case is going to be taught in legal history textbooks," said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, the commission's executive director.
Tom Ford, the lead prosecutor at Taylor's 1993 trial, shook Taylor's hand moments after the verdict and said he was sorry.
"I understand, Mr. Ford," Taylor said quietly.
Moments later, Wake County Dist. Atty. Colon Willoughby, who had fought to keep Taylor in prison on a life sentence, also shook the freed man's hand.
"I told him I was very sorry he was convicted," Willoughby said. "I said I wished we'd had all this testimony in 1991."
Joseph B. Cheshire V, one of Taylor's lawyers, said of the panel's verdict: "This is really a historic day." He urged other states to establish innocence commissions.
Taylor was embraced by three former felons whose convictions had been overturned by North Carolina courts. One wore a T-shirt that read: "Free Greg Taylor."
"This is not just about innocent people," Taylor told them. "It's about injustice."
Taylor hugged Yolanda Littlejohn, the slain prostitute's sister. Littlejohn has said Taylor was innocent and had helped with his defense. She visited him in prison to tell him she believed in him.
"This is a person who lost a member of her family," Taylor said. "How many people could look at this case objectively and think they might have the wrong person?"
He paused and added: "I don't think I could've done that."