Hickory man convicted in 1987 rape to get chance at freedom

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Willie Grimes

RALEIGH, N.C. — A Hickory man serving a life sentence for rape will get a chance at freedom, thanks largely to fingerprints on bananas.

The state Innocence Inquiry Commission decided unanimously Tuesday that there is enough credible evidence of innocence to refer the case of Willie Grimes to a three-judge panel that will ultimately decide whether he should be declared innocent.

Grimes, 65, reacted to the news by saying, “That’s good. That’s very good,” said his attorney, Chris Mumma, director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence. The center advocates for convicts seeking exoneration.

Grimes has always maintained his innocence in the rape of a 69-year-old woman in Hickory on Oct. 24, 1987, even refusing to participate in prison programs that could have helped him reduce his sentence because he would have to admit guilt and express remorse, Mumma said.

“He’s got incredible spirit and is a gentle soul,” she said.

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’s held at the Gaston Correctional Center.

Among the evidence presented to the commission 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 her kitchen before he left, Mumma said.

Investigators found banana peels outside the house and fruit that had been moved from the bowl and left on the kitchen table, she said.

An analyst testified Monday that the fingerprints matched a different man, who had a long record of misdemeanors, including assault on a female. That man, Albert Turner, is living at a nursing home in Lenoir.

He didn’t immediately return a call for comment.

A staff attorney with the innocence commission testified Wednesday that Turner denied that he raped the woman. But attorney Jamie Lau said Turner’s statements differed from that of other witnesses, WRAL-TV reported.

For example, Turner told investigators that he had been in her apartment on several occasions with his girlfriend. The victim’s neighbor and family told the innocence commission that the victim never let men who weren’t relatives into her apartment.

Turner also explained his fingerprints by saying his girlfriend would often bring fruit for the victim when they visited, Lau said.

Besides the fingerprints, all other physical evidence in the case has inexplicably disappeared, 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 recommends that cases be reviewed only if they meet rigorous criteria. If the commission makes a recommendation, the cases are taken up by a three-judge panel that can reverse a conviction on a unanimous vote. So far, three people have been freed through the commission’s work, all of whom had been convicted of murder.

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

Credit: The Associated Press.