It took the three-judge panel less than 30 minutes to decide that Willie Grimes was innocent of a 1987 rape conviction for which he had served more than 24 years.
Judge David Lee read the panel decision, and said the charges of rape and kidnapping were dismissed, as well as having Grimes' name removed immediately from the sex-offender registry. Then Lee paraphrased the Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 speech and said, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty. Thank Jehovah, Willie Grimes is free at last!”
District Attorney Jay Gaither told the judges, “The State cannot argue any conclusion other than for the innocence in the case of Willie Grimes.” He then rested the state’s case and sat down.
Christina Mumma, Director of The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence in charge of Grimes’ defense, said she would not go through a thorough repetition of the evidence presented over the week in light of Gaither’s statement.
She said evidence that could have overturned Grimes conviction had been either lost or destroyed. She lauded Grimes for his persistence of innocence “to anyone who would listen,” and at one point preferring to stay in prison rather than be labeled as something he wasn’t.
In overturning his conviction, Mumma said, “It is our hope that through this review process Willie Grimes can overturn his injured faith in the judicial system as well.”
When asked about the State’s position on the case, Gaither said, “My office is about seeking the truth, and we never play ‘hide the ball’ for anybody or any reason. In this week’s presentation of evidence we counted no less than 35 pieces of evidence and testimony in support of innocence for Willie Grimes. The fact that the three-judge panel was so emphatic in its conclusion and decision only strengthens the confidence I have in our decision.
Among those in the courtroom were Greg Taylor and Dwayne Dail. Both men served prison sentences and were exonerated later through assistance from the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.
When asked if the DA’s office would follow up on any of the evidence and testimony, Gaither replied that Judge Arnold Fox noted the discrepancies between the testimonies of Steve Hunt and Linda McDowell over whether she had acted as an informant for the police. She had denied being an informant, and Hunt testified she had been.
Judge Fox commented on the state’s creation of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence in providing a forum for review of cases where there is concern over the criminal and judicial process. Fox said, “This is perhaps one of the best changes in the judicial system in North Carolina in the last 100 years.”
Grimes, 66, was convicted and served time for the 1987 rape of a 69-year-old woman in Hickory. In July 1988, a jury found Grimes guilty of two counts of first-degree rape and one count of second-degree kidnapping and he was given a life sentence in prison.
Grimes was released on parole in May after spending more than 24 years in prison for the crime he has said he did not commit.
The three-judge panel began hearing arguments and testimony Monday.
The eight-member Innocence Commission held its hearing on Grimes’ case in April and unanimously agreed that enough credible evidence exists to refer Grimes’ case to a three-judge panel.