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Terry Talley

Other Georgia exonerations
In February 2021, Terry Talley was exonerated of four rape convictions on or near the campus of LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. Arrested at age 23, Talley walked free on February 23, 2021, after spending more than 39 years in prison. He was 63 years old.

The exoneration culminated years of investigation by the Georgia Innocence Project and a reinvestigation by the LaGrange Police Department and the Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office.

The attacks occurred over a several month period beginning on February 7, 1981, when a white student was attacked in her dormitory room at LaGrange College, located about 65 miles southwest of Atlanta, Georgia. The attacker grabbed her from behind, choked her, and put a pillowcase over her head. The victim fought back and the attacker fled after saying, “If you tell anyone, I will kill you.” She reported the attack 10 days later and said the attacker was a young Black man wearing a royal blue long-sleeved shirt.

On February 21, 1981, a 20-year-old white student was raped in her dormitory room at about 2:30 a.m. The attacker dislocated her jaw, raped, and sodomized her. She said the man put something around her neck and choked her. He then said, “If you scream, I’ll kill you.” The LaGrange Police Department responded and collected a pair of black gloves from the scene.

On February 28, 1981, a 21-year-old white student at the college found a note on the windshield of her car saying, “You’re next.” She said she got a call later that day from someone she said sounded like a Black male, who said he wanted to have sex with her. She hung up, but got another call 10 minutes later from a male who said, “I am on my way out there now.” She called police. The note was taken by police and fingerprints were lifted.

On April 19, 1981, a 64-year-old white woman was raped in her home. She said the attacker was a Black man, approximately 30 years old, about 5 feet 9 inches tall and clean shaven. He was wearing a dark shirt, probably blue, and jeans. The man choked the woman, bound her wrists, put a pillow over her head and raped her. She said the attacker returned to her house on May 26, 1981. He choked her and put a knife to her throat, saying, “Stop screaming or I’ll kill you.”

On June 24, 1981, a 28-year-old white student was raped in the basement of the Southwest LaGrange Baptist Church, where she was working. The church was two blocks from the home of the woman attacked in April. The victim in this attack said she was grabbed from behind and choked with a rope until she passed out. When she awoke, she said, “Please don’t kill me.” The attacker replied, “Shut up, bitch, I’m not going to kill you.” When she asked that he take the rope off her neck, the man said, “You were hollering and you scared me (so) what did you expect me to do?” She said the man cut off her clothes, punched her in the mouth, bound her wrists with her clothing, and raped her.

On June 30, 1981, at about 8:30 p.m., a 25-year-old Black woman was assaulted while cleaning the bathrooms at the Heart Clinic of the West Georgia Medical Center. The attacker grabbed her around the neck from behind and dragged her into an adjacent library. However, the man did not rape her because she was menstruating.

The attacks were highly publicized and police believed they were looking for a serial rapist responsible for all of the attacks.

On July 21, 1981, a 29-year-old Asian woman called police and reported that a Black man had knocked on her door in April and offered her money. She said that when she tried to close the door, the man grabbed her arm and tried to come inside. But when he saw her child, the man left. She said she called police because she saw the man again. That man was Talley, who was arrested.

Talley admitted that he came to the woman’s house and offered her money for sex. He was charged with simple battery.

Police began bringing in victims of the other rapes and assaults. The victim in the attack on April 19 identified Talley as the attacker by his voice. The victim in the first attack on February 7 did not identify Talley. The victim in the second attack, on February 21, identified Talley as her attacker. The victim in the fourth attack was unable to identify Talley.

Ultimately, Talley was charged with all of the attacks. On November 9, 1981, less than four months after his arrest, Talley went to trial in Troup County Superior Court for the April 19 attack. The victim testified that she identified Talley by his voice. She said that the man at the defense table (Talley) was her attacker. Police officers testified that the victim had never attempted to identify anyone else, which was false—in fact, the woman had identified someone else. The prosecution failed to disclose that the victim had an extremely high blood-alcohol content of .34 at the time she was attacked. The trial lasted one day and the jury convicted Talley of aggravated assault and rape. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 10 years.

He went to trial the following day, November 10, 1981, for the June 24 attack. The victim had not been able to positively identify Talley as her attacker in a lineup. She testified, however, that she was “positive” that Talley was the attacker. She said the man who assaulted her had a “Negro smell.” Neighbors of the victim testified that they saw Talley in the neighborhood looking for work at about the time of the attack. Talley was convicted of aggravated assault and rape. On November 11, he was sentenced to life plus 10 years.

Despondent and believing he had no choice, Talley pled guilty to the attack on February 7, 1981 and the attack on February 21, 1981. He received life sentences for those cases. He also pled guilty to the attack on June 30, 1981 and to the incident for which he was initially arrested in which the woman said he grabbed her arm and then left after seeing her child. He was sentenced to 10 years on those cases.

In 2008, the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP) took on Talley’s cases. A search for evidence turned up only the evidence in the June 24, 1981 case. In that case, a rape kit had been tested for blood type after Talley was arrested. Blood type O was found in the kit. Talley was type O and so was the victim. GIP filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing. When the tests were concluded, Talley was excluded as the rapist. In 2013, based on the test results, Talley’s conviction for the June 24, 1981 case was vacated. The indictment was not dismissed.

In 2017, GIP began what would become a multi-year collaboration with the LaGrange Police Department to re-investigate Talley’s cases. In 2018 and 2019, GIP was able to hire staff attorneys, an investigator, and a case analyst who were able to dedicate time and resources to continue the work that had been previously done on Talley’s behalf.

An expansive review of the six cases for which Talley had been convicted showed that at about the same time that the assaults were occurring, several female LaGrange College students had filed complaints of inappropriate and threatening behavior by a Black male city employee who spent a considerable amount of time on the campus. Gloves that were found after the February 21, 1981 attack appeared to be the same as the gloves worn by that employee. However, the gloves were no longer in evidence.

GIP learned that the employee had been suspended and later fired based on the complaints. None of that information had been disclosed to Talley’s defense attorneys at the time he was prosecuted. That employee was never included in any of the lineups.

The new information was shared with LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar and Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herb Cranford Jr. On February 23, 2021, Cranford joined with GIP attorney Jennifer Whitfield in a motion to vacate Talley’s convictions in four of the cases—the attacks on February 7, February 21, April 19 and June 24.

In an unopposed extraordinary motion for new trial, GIP said that “in recent years, a reinvestigation by the LaGrange Police Department and Georgia Innocence Project has so profoundly undermined the reliability of Talley’s convictions” that GIP and the District Attorney asked that the convictions be vacated “as unreliable and not in the interests of justice.”

“Evidence that has come to light since Talley’s convictions now helps prove what Talley has always maintained,” the motion said. “He is innocent of these crimes.”

On February 23, the four convictions were vacated and the charges were dismissed. Talley was released from prison, more than 39 years from his first conviction. The prosecution said that the remaining two cases were still under review.

After Talley’s release, GIP Executive Director Clare Gilbert declared, “How does an innocent Black man get convicted of a series of brutally violent crimes that he did not commit? 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.”

Gilbert noted that after Talley was arrested, victims and neighbors who lived near the crime scenes in all of the assaults were brought in one by one, within minutes of each other. They identified Talley—even though nearly all of them had previously identified other suspects. The witnesses identified Talley with varying levels of confidence, some by his physical appearance, some by his voice, and others simply by a process of elimination.

Talley was greeted by family members upon his release. “Today is such a blessing,” he said. “Words can’t describe how it feels to finally be free after all these years. I’m so thankful for my family, who kept me going all this time, and for the Georgia Innocence Project, who never gave up.”

“We know that misidentifications, like those of Terry Talley, are a leading contributor to wrongful convictions,” Gilbert said. “Mr. Talley’s exonerations demonstrate the urgent need to reevaluate these eyewitness identification cases and their scientific bases. We hope that Terry’s story encourages other Georgia officials to strive to correct and prevent wrongful convictions in their jurisdictions.”

In 2023, Talley filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the City of LaGrange and several members of its police force.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/4/2021
Last Updated: 10/6/2023
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Assault
Reported Crime Date:1981
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*