NEWTON, N.C. – Willie Grimes, who spent 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, received an apology Friday and was formally deemed innocent, overturning a Catawba County rape conviction.
Grimes’ 1988 conviction on two counts of rape was overturned when District Attorney Jay Gaiter joined Grimes’ defense Friday morning in Newton and offered an apology.
Grimes was let free from prison on May 21 after spending more than 24 years behind bars for a crime he has said all along he did not commit.
Before this week’s hearing, Grimes was still considered a convicted rapist and had to register as a sex offender.
In 1987, a Hickory woman was raped in her apartment. Hickory police had a potential suspect shortly after the crime, but then Grimes’ name came up. Grimes heard that police were looking for him, so he walked down to police headquarters. He had no idea that he would not see the outside world for more than two decades later.
Court offered Grimes no sense of vindication, only more problems. He had asked Hickory police for a “rape kit” after they arrested him for the crime. He said that request actually hurt him. In court the prosecution said there was a strand of hair belonging to a black man on the items of the white rape victim.
In court the hair was never positively identified at Grimes’ hair, just the hair of an African American man. Grimes said that he was at a house more than a mile-and-a-half away with friends who all testified that he was at the house during the time of the rape.
But that testimony did not sway his jury. There was other evidence that never made it into the Catawba County courtroom for jurors to hear like fingerprints.
The North Carolina Center of Actual Innocence organization has been re-investigating the case since 2003, and many Grimes supporters were in court Friday morning.
After hearing the apology, a relieved Grimes was all smiles hugging friends and family throughout the room.