In the latest Criminal podcast, we hear about the notorious wrongful conviction of Willie Grimes, who was arrested in Hickory in 1987 on rape and kidnapping charges and spent more than two decades in prison.
Criminal host Phoebe Judge said the victim was a 69-year-old white woman named Carrie Elliott, who lived alone. She told police that a black man broke into her house and raped her twice.
Grimes spent that same night at a friend's house, witnesses later attested. They described Grimes as a gentle spirit.
Elliott didn't have a clear recollection of her attacker's face. When police presented a photo comparison, she guessed that the suspect in slot No. 2 looked most like him.
Elliott later told her neighbor, Linda McDowell, about the attack. McDowell reached out to the police to inquire about reward money. She then gave police the name of Willie Grimes. Police then put his picture in the No. 2 slot for the next lineup.
Grimes is an African-American man who fit the victim's description of Elliott's attacker, but so did the other men in the other photos.
Grimes said he was surprised when Elliott ultimately identified him in court.
"She said, 'I don't really know. That look like him over there,'" he recalled. "I still felt like everything was going to go pretty smooth, because if she knew it was me, or this and that, she wouldn't have said, 'That look like him.' She would've said, 'That is him sitting right there.'"
Before the neighbor's tip, Grimes hadn't been on the police's radar. In fact, their prime suspect had been a man named Albert Turner. Turner had a violent past. Over the course of his life, he had been arrested 90 times, including 23 for assault. Eventually, it would be proven that Turner's fingerprints were at the crime scene. He died in 2016, before he could be prosecuted for the rape of Carrie Elliott.
A jury with 11 white members convicted Grimes of rape and kidnapping. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Grimes spent decades in prison writing to get help to prove his innocence. It wasn't until the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence took his case that the red flags became clear. There had been no DNA evidence against Grimes, only a "hair comparison" test which determined that the attacker could have been of the same race as Grimes. Physical evidence, including Elliott's rape kit, had been destroyed.
When the Center on Actual Innocence brought his case before a panel of judges, they deliberated for 30 minutes before deciding to free him. The prosecutor simply apologized.
Willie Grimes was 67 years old when he was released. His mother and five of his siblings died during his two-and-a-half decades in prison. Grimes was awarded $750,000 from the state of North Carolina. He sued the city of Hickory and received another $3.25 million last year.
There's so much more to hear about the story of Willie Grimes in this week's Criminal podcast, including Grimes' recollections of 24 years worth of holidays behind bars, and how he dealt with the anger of being falsely convicted.
Criminal is recorded at WUNC.