MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — For years, the public believed that Timothy Taylor was involved in kidnapping, sexually assaulting, killing and dumping a missing teen’s body in an alligator pit.
The problem — none of it was true.
“The case of what happened to Timothy Taylor is really tragic, but it is not uncommon,” said Allie Menegakis, the founder and the executive director of South Carolina for Criminal Justice Reform.
The FBI named Taylor a person of interest in the Brittanee Drexel case in 2016 after a jailhouse informant said that Taylor had murdered and raped her. Drexel, a 17-year-old from Rochester, New York, was vacationing in Myrtle Beach when she went missing in 2009.
Her body was found earlier this month in a wooded area in Georgetown County after officials said Raymond Moody confessed to kidnapping, raping and then strangling Drexel to death.
Taylor’s team had reiterated that he was innocent from the beginning, stating that Taylor, then 16, was in class at the time of the crime. Documents released in 2018 showed that he failed a polygraph test, which are known to be unreliable and are generally not allowed to be presented as evidence in court.
Taylor, who had already served a sentence after being charged with robbery at the state level, was then charged at the federal level for the same crime. His lawyers have suggested that he faced the extra charges because the FBI wanted him to give up information about Drexel’s disappearance in exchange for a lighter sentence.
He was never charged in connection with Drexel’s disappearance.
Taylor’s mother has said that she lost her job, that the family had received death threats and that the accusations have cost them emotionally and financially.
When asked by News13 if Taylor was still involved, the FBI said that “The person we believe is responsible for Brittanee’s murder has been charged,” and that it had an obligation to follow all leads.
While Taylor’s name has been cleared, the “damage has been done,” Taylor’s mother said at a news conference last week.
“His name and face will forever be linked to Brittanee Drexel because of a lie,” she said at the news conference. “That pain is beyond words. We’re not relieved. We’re enraged that it took this long.”
Untrue jailhouse informant testimony isn’t uncommon. Nationally, about 21% of death row exonerations involved jailhouse informants, and 17% of DNA-based exonerations involved them, according to the national nonprofit the Innocence Project.
That number is likely even higher due to the burden shifting to the defense after a conviction to prove that their client isn’t guilty.
“It’s absolutely an uphill battle, and once you have a wrongful conviction, it is incredibly hard to overturn that conviction,” said Rebecca Brown, the director of policy for the Innocence Project.
She said jailhouse informant testimony is often used as a fill-in when there’s no evidence in the case, especially for murder and death penalty trials. It’s an unregulated system, she said, where witnesses are incentivized to lie in order to get a lighter sentence or better jail conditions.
The Innocence Project pushes for reform, which includes the creation of databases so officials can identify habitual informants. An inmate who has testified in multiple trials, Brown said, should raise eyebrows for both sides in a case. A tracking system would also help the defense investigate witness credibility.
One informant, she said, had sexually assaulted children and provided testimony in multiple death penalty cases.
But that testimony is rarely given as part of a vendetta.
“I think more often than not you are dealing with somebody behind bars who is trying to improve their own conditions,” Brown said.
A jury, however, isn’t aware of this. That testimony can also be a deciding factor in a verdict.
“I think informants can certainly be very compelling, particularly if they have not received a deal in exchange for their testimony,” Brown said. “That comes after the trial, so they can appear to be a very credible witness.”
While that testimony can be crucial and reliable in some cases, it isn’t always, which she said highlights the need for reform.
“Tracking the informants benefits the entire community, even the prosecution,” Brown said. “They don’t want to put up unreliable witnesses.”
Several other states have added statewide tracking systems. Brown also suggests that law enforcement should focus on informants who share information that wasn’t publicly released and that they would only know if the suspect had told them.
When Joe McCulloch saw that Taylor’s name had been cleared, he sent a news article to another lawyer as an example of a broken system. McCulloch, who runs the Palmetto Innocence Project in South Carolina, has seen the dangers habitual jailhouse informants can cause.
He points to a 1995 murder case out of Lexington County, where B.J. Quattlebaum’s death sentence was later overturned. The “professional jailhouse informant” was “never not in trouble,” McCulloch said, and traded information in exchange for new teeth.
“People don’t cooperate with the government from the jailhouse because it is the right thing to do,” he said. “They typically do it because they’ve been promised something, so they’ve been motivated or incentivized with the state in hope of getting money, new teeth, or in some cases, getting a reduced sentence.”
The statistics from the Innocence Project surprise him — because he thinks those numbers are too low. He said that might have to do with the defense having to prove that the informant lied once a person has been convicted.
Those deals lead to an “open season on lying” because there are no consequences for not being truthful, he said.
With the idea of “it takes a skunk to catch a skunk,” he said that it’s hard to find lawmakers responsive to reform.
He said jailhouse informants should only be used if there’s a combination of other types of evidence because that testimony has been shown to be unreliable.
“A case with a lot of evidence is a hell of a lot different than a case built on the sand of a jailhouse informant,” McCulloch said.
News13 reached out to the Taylor family to ask for additional comments on reform efforts. A spokesperson pointed to a statement Taylor’s mother made during a press conference last week.
“My sincere hope is that this never happens to another family,” Joan Taylor said at the time. “I call for law enforcement to halt the practice of disclosing unfounded leads and names of potential suspects without credible evidence. Doing this has real-life consequences and a lasting, disparaging effect on so many, particularly Black families. And we’ve suffered the ramifications of being falsely accused for so long.”
Menegakis said that reform also needs to come from multiple sides. She said inmates are under pressure to make accusations, and with little chance of them being released from prison early or getting better conditions, they might see lying as their only way out. Another factor that increases the chances of false testimony includes long wait times to get to a trial.
If their name is released, then their life is put in jeopardy. Menegakis said that lies also lead to law enforcement following false tips.
It impacts victims’ families, as well, she said, when a person’s name is put on blast without the accusations being truthful.
“That’s not justice,” Menegakis said. “The family wants to know who actually did this. They want justice to be served, and it’s not served if it’s not the right person.”