Tears streaming down his face, Edward Clayton Taylor buried his face in his hands as a judge erased his conviction in the 1986 rape of a 4-year-old child, a battle he had fought for 32 years from his state prison cell only to be denied time and time again.
Then as his mother Agnes wept behind him, he robustly hugged the 40-year-old woman who was his accuser back then but who testified Friday that she now knows it was a case of mistaken identity.
From the day he was arrested, Taylor repeatedly protested that he had not touched that 4-year-old girl. Now 57, he got emotional again as he spoke of how he "waited for this day it seemed like all my life."
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"This is a glorious moment, praise be to God, praise be to my mom," Taylor said, thanking his former accuser, the State Attorney's Office, The Innocence Project and others as well.
"There's so much I could say, I could probably sit down and write a book because that's the only way I could articulate the thoughts in my mind right now," he said. "There's emotions, appreciation, after all this time that it actually, finally happened."
As Stephanie McIntyre Love told the court that he was not the one, her testimony led to a quick granting of Taylor's motion for post-conviction relief. Love agreed to allow her name to be used to help tell her and Taylor's story, after speaking out at the 2018 hearing that led to his parole the next year.
"It's been a long process, but I am very grateful. It restores your belief in humanity when you see so many people working for the right things," Love said after the hearing, surrounded by her family, Taylor and his mother. "I went into this not knowing how I was going to feel. I am glad I did this."
It all began 36 years ago
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit for criminal justice reform, began investigating Edwards' case in 2016, finding strong evidence that would later be backed by Love recanting her testimony. They began where the case did: May 6, 1986, when then 4-year-old Stephanie McIntyre told her mother "her butt was sore," their motion said.
A doctor examined the girl and a test for venereal disease came back positive. State investigators from the agency now known as the Department of Children and Families interviewed the girl, as did two Jacksonville detectives, but she did not share any information on who had molested her, the motion said.
During a later interview, using dolls to discuss "good" and "bad" touching, investigators asked her again if anybody had touched her. The girl said a friend's "daddy" did it, adding "he put his thing down there," the motion said.
The child never used Edwards' name during this interview or give any indication of when the sexual battery occurred, the motion said. She did say it happened in her friend's daddy's bedroom.
In a later interview with a detective, the girl once again said it was her 4-year-old friend's "daddy," who was a neighbor. She also said she was in a swimsuit "playing 'house'" when the friend's father walked in. She again used the dolls to show what happened.
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Taylor was the neighbor friend's father, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. On May 13, 1986, police learned that at least two men lived next to the girl's home. But police failed to confirm who actually lived there, "relying only on Stephanie's account," the motion said.
The detective prepared a spread of photos for the girl and her father, including images of Taylor and his brother Michael who lived in the home. But that photo spread did not include a third brother identified as Ithemas, who also lived in the next-door house at the time, the motion said.
"Stephanie then identified Edward as ... 'daddy' and the person who touched her between her legs," the motion said.
'I am innocent!'
Taylor was arrested on May 14 and began fighting for his freedom that first day.
"I think it's absurd," he said in a written statement included in the motion. "I have a child 4 years old. I could never do something like this. I am innocent!"
The girl was interviewed by Taylor's defense attorney on Sept. 23, 1986, and "consistently reported" that the assault occurred on a bunk bed. When asked if she told her parents about it, the girl, then 5, said she "forgot."
The motion indicates that it was apparent the child did not understand the relationships of the people living in her friend's home next door, yet she was found competent to testify at Taylor's trial.
Her friend also was deposed at a competency hearing. There, he said his uncle Ithemas was "in the bed" with the girl, and not Edward. He also said his grandmother "told him what to say" at the hearing and was declared incompetent to testify, the motion said.
During the trial, the girl did testify, identifying Taylor as her friend's "daddy" and saying he did things to her in the bed, the motion said. She also said he watched her go to the bathroom and gave her candy afterward.
Taylor testified on his own behalf, saying he never touched the girl or saw her naked, the motion said. He said he had been in jail since his arrest and did not have any symptoms of venereal disease when tested five days later.
Appeals and motions denied, but more is revealed
Edwards was found guilty on Dec. 11, 1986, and sentenced the next month to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
His appeal was denied on Jan. 30, 1987, the sentence affirmed by the 1st District Court of Appeal, and a further appeal was denied in 1988. A 1996 motion for a trial rehearing was denied, as were more motions and appeals through recent years.
But as The Innocence Project began investigating Edwards' case, the now-adult victim recanted her testimony at Taylor's 2018 parole hearing, saying she misidentified him.
"Stephanie said it was possible that she misidentified Mr. Taylor, but she was positive that the person who assaulted her was someone in his family," according to her first Innocence Project interview in 2016. During her second interview, she also stated she now believes that Ithmas Taylor assaulted her and signed an affidavit confirming that.
Further investigation revealed that Ithemas, who is a half-brother with the last name Anderson, slept in a bunk bed at the house and was subsequently accused and arrested for molesting four other girls younger than 12 in Brunswick, Ga., the motion said. One of those victims reported that "Ithemas frequently invited and tried to convince her to play house," the motion said.
It also was learned that he had a venereal disease, which would explain how the victim contracted it.
And finally, she initially told investigators her friend had "three daddies," then told a detective he had two, according to the State Attorney's Office memo. Given the defense attorney's theory that Taylor had been misidentified, these statements by Love were material to the case and should have been disclosed.
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In 2019, after 32 years in prison, the Florida Commission on Offender Review voted unanimously to parole Taylor, and he has since been discharged from supervision. But Taylor remained a registered sexual offender on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement online list, shown as living in Jacksonville's Arlington community.
His case also was referred to the State Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Review by a police officer after Love testified at his 2018 parole hearing.
Because there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, the defense theory of the case was that Love had misidentified Taylor, the State Attorney's Office's review concludes. And since Love now believes she identified the wrong person and told that to Florida’s Parole Commission, the State Attorney's Office concluded that "it is likely Ithemas Anderson, and not Edward Taylor, who assaulted Love."
"This, in addition to other evidence, has led the state to the decision to not oppose Taylor’s motion," it said.
Taylor's final day in court
Taylor's motion to vacate the judgment against him was filed on April 26 and resulted in Friday's hearing.
Love was not pressured to make her statement in court, she said. Apologizing if she got emotional, Love said she did not reach her decision to exonerate Taylor quickly. And she said she was "not the only victim in this case."
"But I am the only victim for which Edward Taylor was charged," she said. "We sit here, two sides of the same coin, two victims hurt by the same man, hoping for the same outcome: the complete exoneration of Edward Taylor."
Saying what happened "weighs heavily on my heart and on my conscience," Love said she strongly believes she was sexually assaulted by Ithemas Anderson, and new evidence found by The Innocence Project confirms this. She does not discount the work that investigators did in the 1986 crime, but she was a small child and Edward and Ithemas "looked extraordinarily similar to me."
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"I deeply regret that Ithemas was not charged for his crimes and went on to sexually assault at least four other children in similar manners," she testified. "... I can competently state that I know without a doubt that Ithemas Anderson was the man who sexually assaulted me as a child."
That knowledge brings her great pain, she said, since her choice of Taylor from the police photo spread destroyed his life, she said.
"His mother lost precious time with her son; his very young son lost his father; and Edward lost absolutely everything," she said. "I personally cannot fathom that amount of anguish. ... I made a horrifying mistake."
Anderson is serving a life sentence for armed robbery in Georgia. During the follow-up investigation, he was interviewed in prison and stated he knew Taylor was innocent and did not deny molesting Love. He will not be prosecuted further, however, the State Attorney's Office said.
Made a free man
After Love gave her tearful testimony, Judge London Kite accepted the motion and ruled.
"The court has reviewed the voluminous filings by the defense, every single piece of it," Kite said. "... This case is compelling on a number of different levels, and today, Ms. Love was courageous. The court now enters an order granting the defendant's motion."
Kite also lifted the FDLE registered sexual offender status, Taylor smiling again at that.
Over all those years of trying to prove his innocence, Taylor said his mother helped him keep the faith.
"When everybody else turned their back on me in those first few years, she was always there, giving me encouragement and guidance when I needed it," he said, hugging her. "My mom, she's the most precious thing in life."
Looking at her son, she said prayer and trust got her through those three decades that he was behind bars.
"And relying on people who actually cared about us, because most people turned against us because they thought he was guilty, even people I was close to," Agnes Taylor added, tearfully thanking Love for her testimony.
"I am so thankful to her because she came forward and helped us," his mother said. "I love her, and I appreciate all of you that really stepped up and have been there for us, and helped us. ... Stephanie came forward. What more can a mother ask for?"
After the hearing, Love said she believes there needs to be more studies done on how investigators and attorneys communicate with children in cases like hers.
"People need to be more open-minded to visiting these type of crimes and remove the stigma of sexual violence," Love said. "If people spoke more freely about sexual violence, since many people experience it, it could prevent misidentification."
And for those who are behind bars, yet believe they too were falsely convicted, Taylor said the State Attorney's Office "made a mistake," but they corrected it. So he urged them to "hold on and not give up," and continue fighting. Then pinching himself "to make sure I am not dreaming," Taylor said he has a lot of plans now.
"I just want to relax, I want to breathe as a free man," Taylor said. "I am breathing free air now, if that makes sense. I want to spend time with my family and I want to travel, do some things I was not able to do because of the stipulations."
Finally, grabbing a silver ring hanging from a chain around his neck, he partially slid it on a finger and said he wants to marry his girlfriend "and just be me and it's OK."
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This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jacksonville man is absolved. He was deemed a child rapist for decades