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Hickory man leaves prison, awaits innocence hearing

May 21, 2012

A North Carolina man whose innocence claim on a rape conviction will be heard later this year was released from prison Monday on parole after serving almost 24 years of his life sentence.

Willie Grimes, 65, was released from the Gaston Correctional Center, where he was held on his conviction of raping a 69-year-old Hickory woman in 1987.

"I really feel good because it's been a long time, and I didn't know what freedom has been for a long time," Grimes said in a phone interview after his release. He said he was both excited and nervous because prison kept him on a tight schedule of sleeping, eating, showering and even deciding what he could watch on TV.

"Now I'm free to do it when I want to," said Grimes, adding that he had hoped to have chitlins for lunch but hadn't found anywhere serving them. He also was waiting for his older sister, his only surviving relative, to arrive from Kings Mountain. Five brothers and one sister died while he was behind bars, he said.

Grimes had to register at the sheriff's office as a sex offender, then go with a probation officer who reviewed his living arrangements, attorney Christine Mumma said.

Mumma, director of the Durham-based N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, said she tried to delay the sex offender registration until after judges hear his innocence case but the courts didn't allow that.

In April, the state Innocence Inquiry Commission unanimously agreed that enough credible evidence exists to refer Grimes' case to a three-judge panel. That panel will decide if Grimes should be declared innocent.

Grimes has always maintained his innocence, even refusing to participate in prison programs that could have helped him reduce his sentence because he would have to acknowledge guilt and express remorse, Mumma has said.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid will schedule dates for the innocence hearing. Judges who will hear the innocence case are: Union County Judge David Lee, Orange/Chatham County Judge Carl Fox and Buncombe County Judge Sharon Barrett.

In July 1988, Grimes was sentenced to life behind bars for two counts of first-degree rape and nine additional years for one count of second-degree kidnapping. He was eligible for release under a parole program available to inmates convicted of crimes before 1994

Among the physical evidence presented to the commission for its review were fingerprints found on bananas in the victim's home. The victim, who has since died, told investigators that her attacker took fruit from a bowl in the kitchen of her apartment before he left. Investigators found banana peels outside the house and fruit that had been moved from the bowl and left on the kitchen table

An analyst testified before the innocence commission in April that the fingerprints matched a different man, who had a lengthy criminal record of misdemeanors, including assault on a female. That man is living at a nursing home in Lenoir.

Other than the fingerprints, all other physical evidence in the case has inexplicably disappeared even though no one has found any court order to destroy it. The Hickory Police Department found the fingerprint cards after the commission began investigating.

The Innocence Commission is unique in the country because it's the only state agency dedicated to investigating and hearing wrongful convictions. Its staff has examined about 1,300 cases since the Legislature established it in August 2006. If the commission makes a recommendation, the cases are taken up by a three-judge panel that can reverse a conviction only if the decision is unanimous. So far, three people have been freed through the commission's work, all of whom had been convicted of murder.

It usually takes between five and nine months for a panel of judges to be appointed and hear a case recommended by the innocence commission.

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