TROUP COUNTY, Ga. — For the first time in 40 years, Terry Talley is a free man. The 63-year-old spent the majority of his life in prison for crimes he did not commit.
Talley walked out of the Dooly State Prison on Feb. 23. He described the moment as a “blessing.”
“Today is such a blessing. Words can’t describe how it feels to finally be free after all these years,” Talley said. “I’m so thankful for my family, who kept me going all this time, and for the Georgia Innocence Project, who never gave up.”
With the help of the Georgia Innocence Project, Talley was exonerated in four cases he was charged with in 1981 and sentenced to life in prison. A fifth case is still remains under review.
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Talley was charged in a series of violent sexual assaults that took place in LaGrange between Feb. and June 1981. Police said all of the attacks took place near the campus of LaGrange College. Four victims were white women, the other a Black woman. LaGrange police say investigators at that time had believed the similarities in the attacks were done by one Black male suspect.
The attacks happened at the same time police were investigating complaints of inappropriate and threatening behavior by a Black male city employee who had been seen on campus.
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While investigating the assaults, police said they had found gloves at one of the crime scenes that appeared to be the same as those worn by the city employee students had been complaining about. The employee was subsequently fired.
At the same time, the Georgia Innocence Project said Talley had been arrested in July of 1980 for offering to pay a woman for sex. Police said the woman claimed Talley had grabbed her arm while trying to speak with her prompting police to charge him with simple battery.
Police and GBI investigators added Tally to photo and in-person lineups while questioning victims of the near-Campus assaults. All five victims and neighbors identified him after allegedly identifying other suspects.
The Innocence Project said Talley’s lawyers were never told he’d been included in any sort of lineup or photo identification related to the assaults.
Not long after all of this happened, Talley was charged in the assaults, along with the original paying for sex case.
Despite his denials, Talley’s first sexual assault trial took place on April 19, 1981. The trial lasted only a day from jury selection through verdict, with prosecutors using the victim’s belief that Talley was the attacker, even though she could not identify him. The Georgia Innocence Project said police didn’t disclose the victim had tentatively identified a different suspect before the trial and had a .34 blood alcohol reading when the attack happened.
Talley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The next day, a one-day trial on the second charge took place, with a jury finding Talley guilty and sentencing him to another life imprisonment.
Talley would then plead guilty in the other three cases.
The Georgia Innocence Project has been fighting Talley’s case, which had almost come to an end in 2008 after the Innocence Project asked for the court to use a DNA test to prove Talley was innocent.
One year later, that test excluded him as the source of the DNA in a rape kit used from one of the 1981 cases. In 2013, a Troup County Judge overturned the conviction in that individual case, but the indictment for the other four cases remained pending and intact, along with the original conviction and sentence for paying for sex.
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After several years of investigating by the project and eventually by LaGrange police, the case made its way to Coweta Judicial Circuit DA Herb Cranford, where four of the cases were dropped. The fifth case remains under review.
Georgia Innocence Project director Clare Gilbert said a Black man getting convicted during that era for crimes he did not commit was not a shock.
“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. We hope that Terry’s story encourages other Georgia officials to strive to correct and prevent wrongful convictions in their jurisdictions,” said Gilbert.
“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.”