After seventeen years, Gregory Taylor was finally freed on February 17th when the three judge panel of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission unanimously ruled to exonerate him. North Carolina created the commission to investigate and evaluate post-conviction claims of innocence in 2006 and is the first of its kind in the United States. Taylor, wrongfully convicted of first degree murder in 1993, is the first person to be exonerated by the commission.
Over 250 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States. Many others, like Taylor, did not have the benefit of DNA evidence that could clearly identify the perpetrator. These cases demonstrate the importance of keeping our courts open to all credible evidence that a mistake has been made. Unfortunately, in most jurisdictions, barriers of legal procedure too often keep similarly situated defendants from having their claims of innocence considered.
With the creation of the Innocence Inquiry Commission, the judiciary and legislature in North Carolina rightly recognized the need for a mechanism to identify wrongful convictions and exonerate individuals like Taylor who languish in prison for crimes they did not commit. In addition to taking steps to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, it is critical that jurisdictions evaluate the causes of these miscarriages of justice, and take steps to increase the fairness and accuracy of the criminal justice system. Each wrongful conviction teaches us important lessons about how the system is prone to error, and what can be done to fix it.
For example, Gregory Taylor was wrongfully convicted in large part due to inaccurate forensic testimony. Trial testimony to the effect that blood was found on Taylor's SUV near the scene of the crime on the night of the murder was contradicted by a later test conducted by State Bureau of Investigation that found no blood was present. That finding, however, was never provided to prosecutors, defense attorneys or the court. The result of that failure was devastating.
False or misleading forensic expert testimony is a leading factor contributing to wrongful convictions. The Justice Project offers recommendations and solutions for improving the practices and standards of forensic science in Improving the Practice and Use of Forensic Science: A Policy Review. The reforms recommended in the policy review are designed to implement systemic and necessary changes to the practice and use of forensic science, including the requirement that all forensic science labs develop internal structures and policies to prevent bias in testing and analysis, and to better manage the flow of information between law enforcement investigators, analysts, and prosecutors. These kinds of improvements can dramatically improve the quality and reliability of forensic evidence, preventing the kinds of errors that led to Gregory Taylor's wrongful conviction.
Each wrongful conviction evinces the urgent need to reform our criminal justice system. A fair and accurate system not only prevents wrongful convictions, it more effectively identifies the guilty and strengthens public trust in our system of justice.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.