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Ed Taylor’s boy

by Brian Clarey

Greg Taylor sits on a couch in his immaculately tidy home where he now resides comfortably, a significant change of scenery from the prison cell he lived in for 17 years.

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Ed Taylor slides into the booth of the barbecue joint on High Point Road, orders some coffee to take off the chill. He’ll have the chicken Caesar, thanks, and maybe some soup if you got it.

But the lunch is a pretense. Ed Taylor is here for a specific reason: to have the same conversation he’s been having since 1991 — the story of bad decisions, bad timing, bad faith, with a theme of frustration, an undercurrent of injustice and the taint of scandal.

Ed’s here to talk about his boy Greg, who, after 17 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, is now grappling with life on the outside as an innocent man.

“Greg was born here, 1962,” Ed says. “Moses Cone Hospital…. [He was] sharp, inquisitive, active. He’s always been smarter than me. Greg never went to college, but he catches on to things instantaneously.” But Ed says Greg, who lived with his mother in Raleigh after she and Ed separated in 1968, picked up some habits in his youth that he later found hard to shake.

“I think he thought he was too smart to get sucked into addiction,” Ed says.

He’s talking about crack cocaine, for which Greg had acquired a taste that continued even after he married, had a child and entered into his thirties.

“He wasn’t truly addicted,” Ed says. “He always made it to work. He was a respectable parent. Two days before he was arrested he was at a PTA meeting.”

“I was 29 years old, married, had an 8-year-old daughter, house in suburban Cary, two cars, a boat, all that,” Greg says. “At the same time, I would turn and shirk those responsibilities in pursuit of a lifestyle I had come to know back in high school.”

And everyone agrees that if Greg had not driven off that night in search of a couple rocks, none of this would have ever happened.

THE STORY

On Sept. 25, 1991, the Atlanta Braves faced the Cincinnati Reds in a double-header with playoff implications. The first game went 10 innings — the Braves took it 2-1 on an RBI sin- gle by Ron Gant — and when it looked like the second game would last through 10, Greg Taylor decided to slip out of the party he was attending at a friend’s house and score some drugs in the Kentwood housing project. He drove his truck down to Kentwood, where he picked up a drug buddy named Johnny Beck. “As a black guy,” Greg says, “he could get it with less hassle than I could.” They got a couple $20 rocks, but soon the pair found them- selves in the throes of a bender, chasing the high through the project’s streets and apartments until they ended up in Greg’s truck on an industrial side street with a few last morsels of the drug.

When they came upon the cul de sac, Greg thought, “This might be a good place to park and get high.” He saw a dirt path at the end of the circle and took it a hundred yards or so into the woods. Johnny, Greg says, was uncomfortable back there but Greg felt safe, and when the sky lightened enough to reveal a big mud flat in a clearing, Greg made another terrible decision: to spin a doughnut in the mud. It was, Greg says, “the most feeble attempt at 4-wheeling in the history of 4-wheeling, but it seemed like the thing to do.”

Greg says the truck got stuck almost immediately, and no amount of leverage would budge it, so the two walked the dirt path back to the cul de sac in search of a ride or a phone. And, he says, that’s when they saw the dead body.

“It looked like a roll of carpet to me,” Greg says, but Johnny insisted it was not, and they took a closer look.

“I recall the way the hand was shaped,” Greg says. “It was kind of deformed looking.”

And then Greg made another decision that, in hindsight, seems like a mistake: He and Johnny Beck beat feet.

“[We decided] it was none of our business,” Greg remembers. “What was on my mind was truck, wife, work and getting high. I decided that when I go back to get the truck, if [the body]’s still there I’d tell ’em what I know.”

That’s exactly what he did, and before the sun set that day he was arrested for first-degree murder.

The process

Her name was Jacquetta Thomas, and in 1991 she worked as a prostitute on the streets of Raleigh. Her body was found at the end of the cul de sac on the morning of Sept. 26, 1991, just about a hundred yards or so from where Greg’s truck still sat. She had been beaten to death with a blunt object and moved to this final location some time afterward — a time of death was never determined by the medical examiner — and the truck was the only solid lead. Greg was in serious trouble. “I’ll be frank,” Ed Taylor says in the booth of the barbecue joint. “I was very disappointed in Greg. I fig- ured he was guilty. Like a lot of other people, [I thought] if the police arrest you, you’re guilty of something.” Greg made bail by Christmas 1991, and his father had a chance to talk to him about the case. Ed started to think differ- ently.

“They had no forensic evidence,” Ed says. “He told the police, ‘Look all over that truck. You won’t find anything.’” At this point, before the trial began, both father and son thought the truth would prevail. They were wrong. A transcript of Greg’s trial reveals a prosecution case that failed to produce a murder weapon, found no previous associa- tion between Greg and the victim and relied heavily on testimo- ny from jailhouse snitches who bartered their tales for reduced sentences. Strangely, Greg was charged both with first-degree murder and as accessory to the same murder.

“From the beginning they put it on me,” Greg says. “I felt like there was evidence that would prove I was innocent but would never be heard…. I couldn’t take a plea, I couldn’t testify against my co-defendant — honestly. I was stuck with the truth.”

A key piece of evidence placed the victim’s blood on the outside of Greg’s truck. Years later, the evidence, provided by the State Bureau of Investigation’s serology lab, would turn out to be invalid, the discovery of which by the NC Innocence Commission would lead to a huge scandal for the state’s highest law enforcement agency and, not insignificantly, Greg’s release from prison more than 17 years after he went in.

Crucial to Greg’s release was the work of his attorney, NC Sen. Don Vaughan of Greensboro, who was on city council when he took on the case in 2002, and NC Rep. Pricey Harrison, who introduced legislation to establish the commission in 2006.

By 2002, Vaughan says, Greg had exhausted all of his appeals.

“[Ed Taylor] came to me with this case,” Vaughan recalls, “and my job was to review the file, and then I went down to see him in Johnston County Correctional Center. It was an unbelievable case, and through the files I determined that he needed a motion to review the DNA evidence. There were pieces of his case that just did not add up.”

He prepared the motion and, he says, “within a day or two of filing the motion — just unheard of — the motion got denied.

“I discussed it with Pricey,” he continues. “She has very much an interest in justice and post-conviction matters.

Greg’s father came down to the North Carolina General Assembly and met with Pricey when the Innocence Commission was in the formative stages. From that Pricey and I worked on Greg’s case to get reviewed by the commission.”

“[Greg]’s father struck me as very kind and patient,” Harrison remembers. “He was trying to figure out how to pro- mote the case because it was running into some roadblocks. I think what struck me was the fact that he had so much evi- dence that he wasn’t guilty, and there was no way to represent that. The only way would be something like the Innocence Commission — once the deck is stacked against you, it’s very much an uphill climb when the prosecution decides you’re guilty.”

“[Greg]’s dad was one of the most dedicated people I have ever seen,” Vaughan recalls. “A father knows when his child is telling the truth and when he is not telling the truth.”

In the restaurant, after the salad comes out, Ed Taylor remembers some of the problems his boy faced.

Initially, the Taylors hired attorney James Blackburn, who had gained fame as the prosecutor in a notorious case against Army physician Dr.

Jeffrey McDonald, who was convicted in 1979 of the murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters at their Fort Bragg residence. Blackburn had even written a book on the case, Fatal Vision, which became a TV miniseries. Unfortunately, Blackburn himself was under investigation for embezzlement and other crimes at the time he took Greg’s case, for which he was eventually disbarred, convicted and imprisoned.

Greg’s new lawyer, Michael Dodd, was consigned just two months before the trial began.

And though evidence against Greg in his trial included testimony from prison inmates who received time off their sentences in return, a jailhouse confession by Craig Taylor (no relation), who admitted killing Thomas in 2009, was derided by Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby.

“The only new evidence we’ve seen so far is Craig Taylor’s confession,” he told a Raleigh TV station. “And we want to know, ‘Are you relying, is this the evidence that proves his innocence?’” And both father and son contend that Greg had a standing offer as recently as 2000: his freedom for testimony against Johnny Beck.

Greg says that after his arrest he was offered a plea as accessory to murder for testimony against Johnny Beck, a deal brought up again several times. In 2000, a detective visited him in the Johnston County Correctional Facility with the same offer.

“I said, ‘I’m not gonna testify against the guy,’” Greg says. “’He ain’t got nothing to do with it.’ “There has to be some feelings or ethics or morals to life,” he says. “Something you believe in. Lying to put another innocent person in my place was not gonna help me sleep at night…. I felt like if I stuck by the truth, the truth would prevail.”

Seventeen years into his life sentence, he was proven right.

On the inside

“Prison is a society created for people who have committed crimes, who are ostensibly incapable of living with normal people,” Greg says. “Deviants.

“I felt like I was dropped in from another planet. I just could not relate to the other inmates or officers. I met some good people — don’t get me wrong — but I wanted to be as far removed as possible. If I could get through my day without any sort of confrontation, that day was a success. And I figured what worked one day would work the next. I stayed in a very rigid routine.

“I figured out early on,” he continues, “‘Prison’s gonna change me. I have to do what I can so the changes are gonna be positive.’” Greg worked the same job, in the prison library, his entire time at Johnston County Correctional. He earned two college degrees, in electrical engineering and computer technology. He also says he hasn’t had a taste of drugs or alcohol since he was convicted in 1993.

But prison brought unwelcome changes too.

“You have to learn not to want to go anywhere,” he says, “to be content with the idea — no aspirations of a future, not be able to plan a career, not seeing my daughter grow up. I had to learn how to not want to see that.”

Greg’s daughter was 9 years old when he first went to jail in 1993.

“I missed her 10 th birthday,” he says. “I missed her 16 th birthday, her high school graduation, her college graduation, her wedding — she walked down the aisle by herself because she said nobody could take the place of her daddy. I missed the birth of my grandson. And you think, ‘And for what?’ “Every time a milestone would come up, I’d think, ‘Surely by the next one I’ll be out.’ They just keep ticking off, and it doesn’t happen. Finally you get to the point. You lose that hope.”

Now he is a changed man in a changed world. A lot has happened since 1993, particularly in the field of telecommunications, where in an earlier life Greg made his career.

“My telecomm career is pretty much over,” he says. “I had never even used a cell phone [when I got out]. I knew about them, but I didn’t know they had cameras and all this other crazy stuff on them. Cameras without film — that blows me away. And those GPS things that know everything about you: where you’re going, where you’ve been, where you’re at.”

As for the internet, he says he has studied the protocols but had never actually been online until his release in February.

He lives in Durham now, in a townhome bought with some of the $750,000 he was awarded after his release. It is impeccably neat — “In prison you lose so much control,” he says “You try to control the little things, only now it applies to a whole house instead of a locker.”

In the sitting area he has chairs and a couch arranged around a coffee table. On the all above the fireplace hangs a grand flat-screen television set as big as a hot tub.

“These things blew me away,” he says. “I never watched much TV when I was in prison; I figured I’d watch TV when I get out. Now I’ve got 17 years of movies to catch up on.”

Moving on

Greg Taylor says he’s not angry. Not anymore.

“The first couple years I was,” he says, “but you just can’t carry on with that sort of emotion for very long. It just kind of dissipated, I guess.”

Sen. Vaughan says in the next legislative session the NC General Assembly will vote to continue funding the Innocence Commission and that legislation should be introduced to maintain an independent state crime lab for the testing of evidence. And he says we will see “years and years” of litigation in the wake of the SBI serology scandal including three cases that resulted in the death penalty for men convicted on tainted evidence.

“Thank God Greg Taylor was found by the Innocence Commission to be innocent of these charges,” he says. “To have a man who is innocent who has spent his life in prison, it is hard to believe in this day and age can happen. It is hard to believe that a case like Greg Taylor’s can happen in America. But it has.”

“I wanted the world to know I was innocent,” Greg says. “I didn’t know there was no way through the courts to do it. I had to wait for the system to evolve, and wait on the internet so the whole world could know. [Last month] I did an interview with a Japanese newspaper, so I guess the whole world knows.”

In the booth at the barbecue joint, Greg’s father searches for silver linings.

“I feel like if Greg hadn’t been arrested,” Ed says, “somewhere down the road he was headed, he might have been the one dead in the circle. And I have to be pleased that out of all this, there have been things that reformed our system. Things are different now that if they had been in place Greg would have never been convicted.”

People still stop him on the street, or in restaurants and other businesses around town, and they ask Ed Taylor about his boy.

He remembers one exchange in particular, just after Thanksgiving.

“This guy I’ve known my whole life,” Ed says. “He asks about Greg… and he says, ‘Well I hope he learned his lesson.’ I said, ‘His lesson? He didn’t do anything you or I haven’t done in our lives. He’s an innocent man.’”

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