The 2009 jailhouse interview might be the strongest piece.
It’s the moment when Greg Taylor of Raleigh, 16 years into a life sentence for a murder he did not commit, finds out from his lawyers that someone else has confessed to the crime.
Shock registers on his face as a stone blank look before his head falls into his hand and the sobs shudder through his body; we see the enormity of it all wash over him in waves, a catharsis made all the more potent because it’s real.
It is a remarkable piece of footage, pertinent because the confession convinced the eight-member NC Innocence Inquiry Commission to unanimously recommend a review by the three-judge panel that eventually granted Taylor his freedom.
But the confession itself — by a man named Craig Taylor, no relation — was torn apart in arguments during Taylor’s innocence hearing. It was the bit with the State Bureau of Investigation that sealed the deal. And they’ve got that on camera, too.
One of Greg Taylor’s attorneys, Mike Klinkosum, has pinned down SBI analyst Duane Deaver during a cross examination before the three judges. Taylor had been convicted in 1993 largely because of evidence from the SBI serology lab noting the presence of blood from the victim, Jacquetta Thomas, on Taylor’s truck — the only physical evidence that linked the two of them that night. Klinkosum wants to know why the prosecution had evidence of Thomas’ blood, while the reports from the serology lab indicated that the sample was not blood at all.
Backed into a corner, Deaver reveals that he was acting on an SBI policy to indicate the presence of blood evidence when it could — that the state of North Carolina had been deliberately withholding evidence from defense attorneys as a matter of course, not just in this instance, but every instance. This revelation causes a scary moment of stillness in the courtroom; all three judges have their hands over their mouths and lawyers from both sides just look at each other uneasily.
Deaver’s testimony would lead to a massive SBI scandal: decades of tainted evidence that prosecutors around the state had used to make more than 200 convictions, three of them death-penalty cases that could never be made right.
But that bit is very technical, requiring some explanation of the practices used by the lab and the significance of the Takayama hemochromogen test. It needs to be in the film, but probably not up front.
These are the matters that consume Gregg Jamback and Jamie Huss, custodians of more than 80 hours of footage concerning the Greg Taylor episode — they began shooting while Taylor was still behind bars — and producers of the independent documentary film In Pursuit of Justice, which will attempt to rein in the sprawling saga that begins in a suburban Raleigh cul de sac after midnight in 1991 and is not quite over yet.
The two have been involved since 2010, and they’re still trimming the thing down, still debating the true essence of the story, still raising funds for the last stages of production.
“There’s a lot of technical stuff that needs to be done, high-dollar tech stuff ,” Huss said. “We’ve got about $86,000 of our own time and money in this already; as independent filmmakers, we’ve hit our wall. We’ve hit our personal wall after six years.”
And then there’s that most daunting question all narrative storytellers must face: In a story this layered and complex, where do we even begin?
The rough cut that screened last week at Hanesbrands Theatre in downtown Winston-Salem begins with police sirens.
The discovery of a dead body in Raleigh makes the nightly news, along with footage of Greg Taylor’s SUV stuck in the mud behind the cul de sac about 50 yards away.
Taylor — a white father and husband with a steady job — had been smoking crack that night with Johnny Beck, a running partner who was none of those things, when they decided to do a little four-wheeling in the mud flat beyond the cul de sac. When the truck got stuck, they gathered their crack and walked to the street. And that’s when they saw the body.
The night of Taylor’s arrest could have been re-enacted into a wonderful piece of gritty, gonzo-style docudrama. He and Beck agreed that it would not be in their best interests to get involved with a murder investigation. They walked to an all-night gas station where they met Barbara Ray; the trio spent the rest of the evening smoking rock cocaine in various party houses in the city.
Taylor went to pick up his SUV the next day. He would be arrested for murder before the sun set.
In hindsight, Taylor’s first trial played out a bit like the one in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” which shed serious doubt on a murder conviction in Wisconsin. The falsified evidence was the only thing connecting him to the victim, and he refused to take a plea or testify against Beck. His family hired a famous lawyer, James Blackburn, who had successfully prosecuted Army physician Dr. Jeffrey McDonald in 1979 and was featured in a book on the subject, Fatal Vision, by Joe McGinniss that became a TV miniseries.
Blackburn had legal problems of his own in the early 1990s: An investigation for embezzlement and other crimes led to disbarment, a criminal conviction and a jail sentence. Taylor’s new lawyer took the case just a couple months before trial, and it did not go well. By 2002, Taylor had exhausted every avenue for appeal, one courtroom drama after another that would see the innocent man being escorted back to jail every time.
There’s 19 years of backstory that happened before Jamback and Huss came on, and so much has happened since that it’s already blown the parameters of the standard 90-minute doc. And the thing is that, while Greg Taylor is at the heart of Jamback and Huss’ film, the story they are telling is much bigger.
While Taylor was imprisoned, North Carolina became the only state in the nation with an innocence process enshrined in law.
“We want this film to change the criminal justice system, hopefully across the country,” Jamback said. “Now we’re very fortunate that Greg is so articulate and that his case had so many different aspects to it and that he was the first person freed from [the innocence process]. His story is the perfect story to help tell this overall story.
“The current word in the documentary world is ‘impact,’” Jamback continued. “So we want this film to have impact.”
It’s a task that would daunt even the most seasoned documentary filmmaker: a multifaceted, episodic piece of true crime with far-reaching consequences; more than eight hours of footage, much of it showing nuanced pieces of argumentation; an innocence process that is a story unto itself.
For Jamback and Huss, both Winston-Salem residents, Greg Taylor’s story is their first foray into long-form documentary filmmaking — their first effort, a short called “Greg Taylor Ghost,” made the festival rounds in 2016, picking up the Best of the Fest from Greenville’s Down East Flick Fest in 2015.
Before that, Jamback’s résumé consisted mostly of corporate marketing and fundraising videos. He met one of the major characters in the story — Chris Mumma from the NC Center on Actual Innocence — in 2009, when she was a recipient of the Nancy Susan Reynolds Award from the Winston-Salem-based Z Smith Reynolds Foundation for her work.
“In September , Greg had just been through the eight-person panel and received the 8-0 vote to send it to the next level,” Jamback remembered. “We started working on that video in October.”
He and Huss were there every step of the way from then on, beginning a slate of interviews with Taylor while he was still in jail, culminating with every minute of testimony in front of the three-judge panel that eventually declared Taylor innocent.
“I’d done the odd scripted thing, a couple documentaries,” Jamback said. “Taking that 8-minute mindset and expanding it into an hour, 90 minutes, really took a lot of thought on my end.”
They conducted interviews with Taylor’s daughter, his parents, his ex-wife, a couple of the guys he did time with, a journalist who covered the case. Officials from the state Innocence Inquiry Commission, which is a part of the state government, and the NC Center on Actual Innocence, a nonprofit, walk viewers through the peculiarities of the case.
“The answer, then, was surprisingly obvious,” Jamback said. “Which was: You think about the film in eight-minute segments, and then you piece all that stuff together.
“It took me a while to get there,” he admitted.
The rules of storytelling still apply: Content determines structure. And with such a surplus of material, the question becomes not what needs to go into the film, but what to leave out.
The screening room at the Hanesbrands Theatre filled early, mostly people who have invested in the film or otherwise have an interest in Greg Taylor, justice in North Carolina or documentary films. Jamie Huss took a show of hands — perhaps 20 of the 200 or so attendees have never heard of Greg Taylor and his 20-year tangle with the law.
Jamie Huss introduced the people seated in the front row, including Greg’s mother and stepfather; his brother Ed, who Huss said has “basically earned a law degree” in the years Greg was incarcerated; Chris Mumma, who found the smoking gun; and Daniel Essa, who served time with Taylor.
Greg was there, too, at ease in jeans and sneakers. He’s been free for almost seven years now. When he was released in 2010, he was worried that he might not be able to resume his career in the computer-technology field, as things had advanced so much since 1991 when he was first locked up.
“My telecomm career is pretty much over,” he told an interviewer in 2010. “I had never even used a cellphone [before 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.”
Now he once again works in the tech industry; a few people from the office made the drive in from Durham for the screening.
Also in the audience that night, Munn said, was a filmmaker shopping a documentary about the murder of Michael Jordan’s father that’s taken eight years to compile.
“It takes some time,” Huss said. “It takes some time when you’re working with the criminal justice system.”
She emphasized that the screening is a “rough cut.”
“There are mistakes,” she said — the soundtrack is not filled out, finishing touches in sound and color need to be applied.
The storyline, too, becomes bogged down at times with what Jamback would later call a “civics lesson.”
In the course of the tale, it becomes necessary to understand the various governmental, non-governmental, academic and even private organizations that fall under the “innocence” mantle. All are concerned with getting innocent people out of jail, with varying aspects and authorities.
Central to the story, too, is the state’s innocence legislation, which began as a result of the relationship between Mumma and state Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, for whom she clerked out of law school.
Lake sat for a long interview, lending a lot of credence to the project and some insight into the 2006 legislation that created the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission. Several lawyers and politicians get their say as well, eating up precious screen time.
“Lawyers take forever to say anything,” Jamback said.
But for anyone familiar with the case, the doc is a trove of rare gems: three interviews with Greg Taylor conducted while he was still in jail and not at all certain he wouldn’t remain there for the rest of his life; a long interview with Johnny Beck, who was set free after a year without charges being filed against him; testimony from Barbara Ray that was omitted from the original trial.
Serious government wonks will love the footage of the hearing before the three-judge panel, itself a study in narrative nonfiction that makes for compelling courtroom drama all on its own. This is where the audience sees the pugnacity of Tom Ford, the man who first prosecuted Taylor as Durham DA now inexplicably called on to prosecute him again. Ford’s badgering style in cross-examination makes him a great villain, and it shows our hero, Taylor, standing strong under the barrage.
It’s where we meet Barbara Ray. And it is the setting for Duane Deaver’s sensational admission that set off the biggest scandal in state law enforcement this century.
There are heroes like Mumma, the dogged investigator who found the missing piece in a fit of desperation, when she and an assistant had begun going over the case files by hand, and Ed Taylor, the loyal brother who stood by throughout.
“Eddie was the go-to person in the family, with all the legal stuff,” Jamback said. “He interfaced with the attorneys and the investigators and he knew everything backwards and forwards. And we sort of gave him short shrift.
“The scene in the film at the very end,” Jamback continued, “after the first time Judge Manning declares him innocent, he said, ‘Seventeen years, that’s what we’ve been waiting for,’ and he choked up and that’s his moment, really, in the film. It’s the climax of his storyline.”
They’re still debating the footage of private investigator and former police officer Marty Sexton, which hit on one of the most relevant facts in the case.
“He has a quote where he basically reinforces what Chris [Mumma] and others said,” Jamback explained. “The thing that made Greg stand out is that he and Johnny never turned on each other. Marty says the same thing — ‘What is really amazing is that these guys never turn on each other. Other people in that situation usually give the other person up in two seconds.’ And I said, ‘We don’t want to add another character in this film who is only going to say one thing.’”
“I say yes,” she said. “When a police officer and all his years of serving in a police department, for him to say it is more powerful than just Chris. That jumped off the page to me first.”
“I told Jamie [Huss] we’d go look at the footage again,” Jamback said.
Before the screening, Greg Taylor stood in the cold air outside the Hanesbrands Theatre with Chris Mumma,
“I know that dude,” Greg Taylor said to a ponytailed man, a guy he recognized from prison, who approached. He said the same to a reporter he hasn’t seen in years.
“I know that dude.”
The years of freedom have been good. He’s employed and single, and the $4 million windfall, which doesn’t even begin to cover his 17 years behind bars, does make things a little easier. He spends time with his grandchildren, three of them now, and travels. Last year alone he visited Belize, Hawaii and Las Vegas.
“I’ll never be over this,” he told the reporter. “I was behind bars for a third of my life. It’s just a part of me. I’m not trying to run or hide from it. I’m just trying to make sense of it.”
When Taylor entered the lobby, Gregg Jamback and Jamie Huss surrounded him and guided him to the receiving line under the stairwell so he can press flesh, but he kept drifting away and no one made an effort to corral him.
“At first we thought this film was about a process,” Huss said. “Then it was about Greg as a person. Then it was a confession, and then it’s a rogue agent. And then it shifted again with the whole process in the SBI.
“Every time you think it’s about one thing, bam! We got a surprise.”
“In filmmaking there’s this device called the McGuffin,” Jamback said. “In The Maltese Falcon, it was the Maltese falcon — the kind of thing that runs through the whole story but it’s really kind of irrelevant.”
Greg Taylor, he said, is a kind of McGuffin.
“In a way I have always thought this piece is Greg’s story,” he continued, “but it could have been about any one of the 13 exonerees. The real story has always been the creation of the commission and the work that Chris had done to free all these people.”
If Taylor is affected by his role as a minor player in his own saga, he doesn’t show it. He recently went to a reunion at his high school — Sanderson, in Raleigh — and found some clarity in a conversation with an old classmate.
“I said to her, ‘You know, I’m just trying to find a purpose in all this,’” Taylor remembered.
“She said, ‘Don’t worry about finding the purpose. Just keep telling your story.’”
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