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North Carolina man gains freedom after serving 24 years for rape he didn’t commit

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It took three judges 30 minutes to determine what others couldn’t in  two and a half decades: Willie Grimes was not guilty of the 1987 rape for which he served 24 years in prison.

The decision of the panel was read by Judge David Lee, who ordered that the rape and kidnapping charges against Grimes be dismissed and that the wrongfully convicted man’s name be removed from North Carolina’s registry of sex offenders. In proclaiming Grimes’ new found freedom, Lee expressed the gravity of the decision on the former prisoner’s life. “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty. Thank Jehovah, Willie Grimes is free at last!”

District Attorney Jay Gaither did not contest the ruling.

Grimes was represented by The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence Director Christina Mumma during the proceeding. Mumma praised her clients’ determination and persistence and, at one time, his refusal to leave prison if it meant being labeled something that he was not—a rapist.

Mumma hopes that the overturned conviction can help Grimes regain something that will be difficult to restore—trust in the legal system that labeled him as a criminal and took 24 years of his life and freedom. “It is our hope that through this review process Willie Grimes can overturn his injured faith in the judicial system as well.”

Now 66-years-old, Grimes was convicted of and served time for the 1987 rape of a 69-year-old woman in Hickory, North Carolina. In 1988, a jury found Grimes guilty of two counts of first-degree rape and one count of second-degree kidnapping. Along with the verdict, Grimes was handed a life sentence in prison. He was released on parole in May after spending nearly a quarter century in jail for a crime for which he is innocent.

Judge Arnold Fox, a member of the three-judge panel that overturned Grimes’ conviction, noted the important change in the state’s legal system that afforded a review of the wrongfully convicted man’s case. Fox said of the creation of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence , “This is perhaps one of the best changes in the judicial system in North Carolina in the last 100 years.”

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