(Note: This post contains spoilers for later episodes of Netflix’s true crime documentary “The Staircase.” You might want to finish it before reading on.)
The big turning point in “The Staircase” is when Mike Peterson, after being convicted of murdering his wife Katherine and serving eight years in prison, gets a chance at a new trial. That’s because something major has changed: an expert who testified against him lost his credibility.
Duane Deaver, formerly an agent in the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, testified about blood spatter analysis at Peterson’s trial, but a newspaper expose revealed that Deaver and other SBI agents had misrepresented evidence in more than 200 cases. The big one was that of Greg Taylor who, thanks to Deaver’s testimony, was convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and spent almost 17 years in prison.
Taylor was released in 2010, notably the first person in U.S. legal history ever to be declared “innocent” by a court — not just “not guilty” as is usually the case. That’s because the evidence held back by the SBI would have exonerated Taylor, but his defense attorneys never saw it. The whole story was detailed in the 90-minute WRAL.com documentary “6,149 Days.”
The case began in 1991, when the body of Jacquetta Thomas, 26, was found in a cul-de-sac in Raleigh, North Carolina. Thomas had been stabbed and beaten to death, and nearby was a Nissan Pathfinder. That Pathfinder belonged to Taylor; when he and his friend, Johnny Beck, returned to it the next day, police arrested them for Thomas’ murder.
In 1991, Taylor was was a crack cocaine abuser, and he and Beck had been smoking in the vehicle the night before, parked up a small dirt road off the cul-de-sac. The pair attempted to drive off the dirt road but got the Pathfinder stuck in mud. After repeatedly trying to get the vehicle free of the mud, the pair decided to walk back to town. Taylor testified that he and Beck found what appeared to be a body in the cul-de-sac that night after smoking crack, but didn’t report it to police. Both men denied killing Thomas, and Taylor said investigators wanted him to implicate Beck in the crime, but Taylor refused.
Police found a witness, Eva Kelly, who testified that she’d seen Thomas get into Taylor’s vehicle. A jailhouse informant also testified that Taylor had admitted to the murder while he was incarcerated. In 1992 and 1993, 16 months into preparation for his trial, Taylor’s attorney, James Blackburn, surrendered his law license after it came out that he had embezzled fees from his law firm. Blackburn was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder as well.
Taylor got a new attorney, Mike Dodd, who said that his defense was to rely on a motion to dismiss the case for lack of evidence, and to discredit the prosecution’s witnesses. As a result, the defense presented no evidence of its own during Taylor’s trial.
The most damning evidence for the prosecution came from the SBI and Deaver. Deaver testified that blood was found in Taylor’s car, and that it tied Taylor to Thomas and the murder. The report said investigators found the “chemical indication for the presence of blood.” There was no murder weapon and very little trace evidence in the case — the only forensic evidence that seemed to tie Taylor to the murder was the presence of blood in his car. No DNA testing on that blood was discussed in court.
Taylor was charged with the murder, and eventually, a jury sentenced him to life in prison. A few months later, prosecutors dropped their charges against Beck for lack of evidence. Taylor maintained his innocence, but all his appeals failed. It was nearly 17 years later that Taylor got another chance to prove he didn’t murder Thomas. That was because another jailed man, Craig H. Taylor (not related to Greg Taylor), confessed to Thomas’ murder.
While being interviewed by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, Craig Taylor suddenly broke down into tears and confessed to the crime, WRAL.com reported. The group, created by the state in 2006 to investigate questionable cases after a series of wrongful convictions came to light, was looking into another case involving Craig Taylor when he confessed.
In 2009, the eight-member panel held a hearing on Greg Taylor’s case and unanimously voted to turn the case over to a three-judge panel for re-evaluation, as reported in the University of Michigan and University of California-Irvine’s National Registry of Exonerations. That hearing took place in February 2010: If Greg Taylor was able to produce clear and convincing evidence that he was innocent, he had a chance to go free.
Defense attorneys for Greg Taylor re-questioned Eva Kelly, who claimed she’d seen Thomas get into Greg Taylor’s vehicle. Kelly said she had made a deal with the prosecution for her testimony, but her testimony at the new hearing was that the woman she saw Taylor and Beck with did not look like Thomas.
Deaver also testified during the hearing, and admitted that the SBI had conducted additional tests on Greg Taylor’s vehicle — but had not shared those findings with the court. The SBI’s DNA test showed that what the prosecution had said was blood in the vehicle wasn’t blood at all. Deaver said the SBI did not send that results of the later tests to prosecutors or to the defense, and so the results didn’t appear in Greg Taylor’s trial. What’s more, he said that holding back such blood tests, those that might exonerate defendants, was official SBI policy; the investigators were withholding evidence in every single case.
One aspect of the case that was not a big part of the hearing, though, was Craig H. Taylor’s confession. Prosecutors initially argued the defense focused on physical evidence instead of the confession that convinced the Innocence Inquiry Commission, because it was later discredited. Craig H. Taylor had confessed to some 70 other homicides, with none confirmed, WRAL reported.
The three-judge panel unanimously ruled that Greg Taylor was innocent (watch the video of the ruling here). He was pardoned by the governor of North Carolina in March 2010 and finally released from prison, making him the first person exonerated by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. The state gave him $750,000 in compensation for the conviction. Greg Taylor also won a $4.625 million settlement from North Carolina after suing for wrongful imprisonment, as McClatchy reported.
According to WRAL.com’s documentary, Greg Taylor lives in Durham, North Carolina, and helps with innocence investigations and working toward police reforms with the North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence, a nonprofit that coordinates Innocence Project organizations in the state that helped him prove his case.
Deaver’s revelation that SBI had a policy of withholding evidence triggered a massive audit of the institution. It was later found that the SBI had misrepresented evidence in more than 200 criminal cases between 1987 and 2003 — and Deaver personally in 34 of them over his 25-year career. Greg Taylor’s case and the audit of the SBI led to the re-opening of Peterson’s case in 2009, as well as several others.
With Craig H. Taylor’s confession discredited, Thomas’ family, including her daughter who was only five at the time of Thomas’ murder, are still waiting for justice, WRAL.com reports. In 2014, Thomas’ sister, Yolanda Littlejohn, wrote at TheRoot that police were not giving her family any information about the case. She is a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, an organization opposing the death penalty.