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.