SMITHFIELD, N.C. — Greg Taylor has a head for numbers.
He'll tell you exactly how many Budweisers he had on Sept. 25, 1991, the night he drove into Southeast Raleigh looking for drugs to keep his night going. He knows he's read more than 800 books in the years the state has kept him locked up for murder. And, by his reckoning, today is the 6,003rd day he will spend in prison for a crime he has insisted from the beginning he never committed.
Matters of the heart are tougher for Taylor. Mention Kristen, the daughter he had to abandon as a child, and he buckles in sobs. Ask him about the battle his sister lost with cancer in 2006, Taylor will shake his head and mutter that he should have been there. Ask him how he feels about the guy who has now confessed to murdering Jacquetta Thomas, Taylor is practically speechless.
"It just never occurs to you that an innocent person could get dragged into something like this," Taylor said Saturday in his first interview since the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission voted unanimously this month that he is innocent.
Taylor waits now, still a prisoner as his case moves to a three-judge panel to be convened by the chief justice of the State Supreme Court. Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby can either contest Taylor's request to be exonerated or petition the court to vacate his sentence before the panel convenes.
The delay is agonizing for Taylor and his family. It's also frustrating for Thomas' family.
"I hate it's taking even one more day," said Yolanda Littlejohn, Thomas' sister. Littlejohn said she has always thought Taylor was innocent, and after sitting through the commission's hearing, she is pained by Taylor's misfortune. "You don't keep a man locked up because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Taylor is a measured, calm man who settled into his captivity. He accepted the gifts of imprisonment -- sobriety and reflection -- and tried to make peace with its insults.
"Anger's out the door a long time ago," Taylor said. "You can't survive for any length of time on bitterness and blame."
Reading and learning became his salvation. He earned two associates degrees in prison and became a teaching assistant for community college professors who teach inside the prison. At Johnston Correctional Institution, Taylor manages the library, linking other inmates with authors he thinks they will like.
Taylor's arrest stemmed from a night of bad luck and bad choices. The night Jacquetta Thomas was murdered, Taylor said, he had ventured into Southeast Raleigh, trolling for crack. He and Johnny Beck, a local he'd befriended months before, pulled into a dark, muddy path to smoke, he said.
Taylor said they saw Thomas' body, stripped, beaten and stabbed. Taylor asked Beck if they should call for help. Beck urged him to forget about it and move along. Taylor's truck got stuck in the mud up the path from Thomas' body; he left it there. Police immediately considered him a suspect.
Taylor figured he would quickly straighten things out. He endured two interrogations. He turned over his clothes and pocket knives. When police asked for his hair to do a DNA test, he couldn't rip it out fast enough.
"At any given time, there were a hundred things we could have done differently if we were guilty," Taylor said.
By day's end, Taylor was locked up in the Wake County jail.
"It's so frustrating to go up against all these people," Taylor said. "They have all this power. You have the truth, but they refuse to look at it."
A jury convicted him based on a jailhouse snitch's testimony and vague statements by a prostitute. Over the next decade, county, state and federal judges would block every attempt to undo his conviction.
Daughter lost hope
Kristen Puryear spent her entire childhood thinking police were bad.
"They took my daddy," says Puryear, 26.
As a girl, she couldn't understand why her dad was out that night or why police thought the man who read her stories was a murderer.
One day she got home from school, and her dad was gone for good. For Christmas that year, her grandmother brought her a gold cross from her father. She's worn it every day since, and pinned it under her wedding dress as a substitute for her father's escort.
Taylor missed Kristen's prom, her birthdays, her high school and college graduations. He missed her wedding, too, and the birth of her son, Charles.
"I had lost hope he would get out," said Puryear. "No one would listen."
When she visited her father, they talked about her studies at Virginia Tech, her new house, her husband. Last year, he held his grandson, leaning across the visitor's table to take the sleeping baby from his daughter.
These days, their conversations have switched to talking about the adventures they'll have when and if Taylor is free. Kristen is eager to take him to a Virginia Tech football game. She's planning to cook a feast for his first meal as a free man.
Taylor prepares, too. He flips through his certificates and diplomas, wondering which might help him land a job. He scans the shelves in the prison library, wondering if there's a book to help him get ready for this transition.
He's not sure how to begin again. He is almost the age his parents were when he went into prison.
"I don't know what 47 is, I only know what 31 is," Taylor said. "I think I want to go home and be invisible for a while."