Integrity to prevent tragedy

In 1993, Greg Taylor was convicted in a North Carolina court of killing prostitute Jaquetta Thomas two years earlier. At the time of his conviction, Taylor was a drug addict with little going for him, but as it turns out, his protestations of innocence were true. After spending nearly two decades in prison, Taylor was recently exonerated based on evidence gathered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.The commission — the first agency of its kind — is charged with reviewing cases with substantial evidence the perpetrator may not be guilty. Taylor’s case is also precedent setting: He is the first inmate whose conviction has been reversed following an investigation by the commission.When the decision was announced, Taylor walked free for the first time in many years. He is getting to know his grown daughter and finding out what technology is all about. He asked the governor for a pardon, which, if granted, would make him eligible for up to $750,000 in compensation. And, although the 47-year-old man now celebrates his freedom, no one would blame him if he harbored a lingering bitterness at the circumstances that led to his conviction.That’s because the evidence used to send Greg Taylor to prison was questionable, at best. In addition to jailhouse confessions and shaky eyewitness testimony, the state lab, operated by the State Bureau of Investigation, had a big role in Taylor’s conviction.The problem with the lab results stemmed from its failure to report the absence of blood evidence on Taylor’s vehicle. Instead, the lab results shared evidence of preliminary tests that were positive for the presence of blood, but did not share the results of subsequent tests that negated the original findings. In court, the prosecution relied on the blood evidence that, in actuality, didn’t exist to make its case. It would later come out that was the only information disclosed to the defense.Now state officials have the difficult but necessary task of reviewing the lab’s other results to determine several things: Are there any more cases like Taylor’s that need to be reexamined? Were the lab’s procedures flawed? Is there criminal culpability and, if so, who are the ones that should be held liable? And finally, what should be done to ensure that there are no more Greg Taylors in the future?The state’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, has hired two former FBI agents with deep connections to labs and their operations, and charged them with sorting through this mess. It’s a demanding but extremely important task: How can the citizens of the Tar Heel State feel confident in their criminal justice system if a vital component is broken?State officials in this case should be commended for moving with speed and decisiveness to correct the problem, but this incident has certainly left its mark on North Carolina’s criminal justice system. Until the study is completed and preventative procedures are implemented, it is unlikely that public confidence will be restored.I remember when my partner and I encountered a narcotics officer determined to put a notorious drug dealer in prison. We had picked up the drug dealer in connection with another crime and were questioning him when the officer took us aside and made a case for charging the guy even though we eventually determined he was not involved. The officer’s justification: He’s a criminal who needs to go away.We didn’t charge the guy because he wasn’t guilty of that crime. And we believed if we started playing by his rules it made us no better than the criminals we arrested. Integrity in the process, from start to finish, is the most important quality the criminal justice system can offer the citizens it serves. Without it, more Greg Taylors will go to jail while the real criminals continue to walk among us. And that is a tragedy for everyone involved, including the victims.