Georgia Man Exonerated In Four Separate Rape Cases After Nearly 40 Years Of Wrongful Imprisonment
Once falsely labeled a serial rapist, 63-year-old Terry Talley has been exonerated of four separate sexual assault cases and released from prison. A fifth case is still under review.
Georgia Innocence Project (GIP) has joined with Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herb Cranford Jr. to secure exonerations in not one, but four wrongful convictions against one man for a series of violent sexual assaults that occurred in LaGrange, Georgia, in 1981. Terry Talley’s freedom culminates an effort by GIP that spanned more than a decade, and for the past several years involved collaboration with the LaGrange Police Department (LGPD). Talley was freed on February 23, 2021, from Dooly State Prison and was eagerly welcomed home to live with his family.
“Today is such a blessing. Words can’t describe how it feels to finally be free after all these years,” said Talley on his first day of freedom. “I’m so thankful for my family, who kept me going all this time, and for the Georgia Innocence Project, who never gave up.”
The crimes for which Talley was wrongly convicted took place between February and the end of June 1981. During that time, five violent sexual assaults–two in February, one in April, and two in June–occurred on, and in the vicinity of, the LaGrange College campus. Four of the victims were White women and one was a Black woman. Similarities across the attacks led investigators to believe the assaults were committed by a sole Black male perpetrator.
Around the same time, several female LaGrange College students filed complaints of inappropriate and threatening behavior by a Black male city employee who was frequently on campus.
During investigation into one of the on-campus sexual assaults, police recovered gloves at the crime scene that appeared to be the same as those worn by the employee against whom complaints were made. The employee was ultimately suspended and fired for misconduct. However, Talley’s defense lawyers were never told about the complaints or the subsequent investigation and termination. In addition, police investigating the five violent sexual assaults never included that person in any eyewitness identification procedures conducted for the victims or witnesses.
Under immense pressure from the community to solve the crimes, authorities zeroed in on Terry Talley, a 23-year old Black male who was arrested on July 21, 1981, after he agreed that he had offered to pay an Asian woman for sex three months prior. On July 21, the woman reported to police that in April a Black male had knocked on her door, offered her money, and then took her arm as he tried to speak with her. He then saw her child in the home and left without incident. She recognized the man upon seeing him again on July 21, and identified the man as Terry Talley. Police initially charged the attempt to pay for sex as a “simple battery.”
Despite no evidence tying him to the five violent crime scenes, lead detectives from the LGPD and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) put Talley in photographic and in-person lineups. Victims and neighbors who lived near the crime scenes were brought in one by one, within minutes of each other, and identified Talley–even though nearly all of them had previously identified other suspects. The witnesses identified him with varying levels of confidence, some by his physical appearance, some by his voice, and others simply by a process of elimination.
Shortly thereafter, Talley was charged with the five violent sexual assault cases, as well as the attempt to pay for sex.
“How does an innocent Black man get convicted of a series of brutally violent crimes that he did not commit?” asked GIP Executive Director Clare Gilbert. “The answer lies in the power of unreliable eyewitness identification, a blinding determination by the State to convict, and systemic racial bias. Add to that an under-resourced public defender system, set in the 1980s Deep South, and you have an infallible recipe for wrongful conviction.”
Talley adamantly denied any role in the five violent sexual assault cases. Three months after his arrest, Talley went to trial for the violent sexual assault that occurred on April 19, 1981. The trial lasted one day, from jury selection through verdict. The key evidence against Talley was the victim’s confidence that Talley was indeed the assailant, even though she could not identify Talley in photos as he sat nearby in court. Police repeatedly bolstered her credibility by testifying that she had never attempted to identify anyone before Talley and that they had no reason to doubt her identification of Talley. However, police failed to disclose that she had tentatively identified a different suspect before trial, and that she had a shockingly high .34 blood alcohol concentration at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the jury convicted and Talley was sentenced to life in prison.
The very next day, Talley again fought to prove his innocence in a second trial. The victim in that case testified that on June 24, 1981, she was violently attacked from behind in a church basement. She could not identify the attacker by face. She described him as having a “Negro smell” and medium build with “good diction.” At the police station, she had tentatively identified Talley by his “voice.” Talley testified that he did not attack the victim, and that during the lineup, he was asked to say different words than the other people in the lineup. White neighbors identified Talley as being the man that they had seen looking for yard work in the neighborhood where the attack occurred. Based on those identifications, Talley was again convicted following a one-day trial, and again sentenced to life in prison.
Already facing two consecutive life prison terms, Talley then pled guilty to the remaining charges and had been incarcerated ever since, almost 40 years. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
GIP agreed in 2004 to examine Talley’s cases. In 2008, GIP filed a motion for post-conviction testing and analysis of male DNA collected from the rape kit in the June 24, 1981, case in which the victim identified Talley by his voice. In 2009, DNA testing excluded Talley as the source of the DNA, affirmatively proving he did not commit the crime. In February 2013, a Troup County Superior Court Judge overturned that conviction. However, the underlying indictment was never dismissed and the charge remained pending. Meanwhile, the four other violent sexual assault convictions remained intact, as did the conviction and 10-year sentence for the attempt to pay for sex. Talley remained imprisoned, stymied by lost or destroyed evidence and shifting State theories.
In 2018 and 2019, GIP was able to hire staff attorneys, an investigator, and a case analyst who could focus dedicated time and resources on building upon the significant work done by former GIP staff, interns, and volunteers over the years. Through an ongoing partnership with the LGPD, GIP reviewed all six cases and related case files from the time. GIP also conducted several additional witness interviews and investigations, and explored new scientific advancements.
Based on these renewed investigations, and with support from LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, GIP recently presented Talley’s case for innocence to District Attorney Cranford. District Attorney Cranford agreed that there was not enough evidence to support these convictions, and that Talley’s continued incarceration was not in the interest of justice. Even while continuing to review the fifth of the violent sexual assault cases (for potential exoneration) and the attempt to pay for sex (for potential reduction of charges), District Attorney Cranford promptly joined GIP in securing the first four exonerations and Talley’s long-awaited freedom on February 23, 2021.
“Terry’s freedom is far too long overdue, but we are grateful that the LaGrange Police Department and District Attorney Cranford had the courage to take a hard look at the lack of evidence against him and act to try to right these historical wrongs,” said GIP Managing Attorney Jennifer Whitfield. “Our fight for justice for Terry will continue until the last two cases are resolved.”
Scientific advances helped uncover Talley’s wrongful convictions and free him from prison. New DNA technology–not available in 1981 when Talley was convicted–proved Talley did not commit one of the violent sexual assaults in 2009 and provided the thread by which all the other cases unraveled. In most old cases, however, remaining physical evidence cannot be tested because it has long since disappeared or been destroyed, as in all but one of Talley’s cases. Modern advancements in the science and psychology of eyewitness identification and memory malleability also provide a lens through which to analyze older cases like Talley’s for potential wrongful convictions.
“We know that misidentifications, like those of Terry Talley, are a leading contributor to wrongful convictions. Mr. Talley’s exonerations demonstrate the urgent need to reevaluate these eyewitness identification cases and their scientific bases,” said Gilbert. “We hope that Terry’s story encourages other Georgia officials to strive to correct and prevent wrongful convictions in their jurisdictions.”
Georgia Innocence Project asks that media refrain from contacting Terry Talley or his family directly at this time, and instead direct media inquiries to Georgia Innocence Project via Communications Manager Marissa Lea Gaston at 404-373-6643.