EXCLUSIVE: He’s free after 40 years due to 4 overturned convictions

Police looking at new man in 1981 LaGrange sex assaults

UNADILLA, Ga. — Terry Talley, a 63-year-old former factory worker who likes to sing Journey songs and write poetry, walked free from prison after 40 years for crimes he insists he didn’t commit. He smiled, glowing in the light of a vibrant sunset. He wiped a tear. He said he didn’t want to cry.

“You deserve a few tears,” said his attorney, Jennifer Whitfield of the Georgia Innocence Project.

Talley turned to her. “A few?” He laughed.

Talley had been serving time in a series of 1981 sexual assaults in LaGrange, 70 miles southwest of Atlanta. He was originally sentenced to four life terms after convictions in six cases. A DNA test in 2009 proved he didn’t commit one of the crimes, but he still had three life sentences until Feb. 23, when a judge agreed to exonerate him in three separate cases.

Talley’s release was a result of a remarkable collaboration between defense attorneys and police detectives.

The LaGrange Police Department, which helped send Talley to prison, and the Georgia Innocence Project have been re-examining his case for years. The police got involved after the DNA test eliminated Talley in one of the sexual assaults that authorities long believed were committed by the same man. In 2020, partly because the nonprofit Georgia Innocence Project had recently secured funding to hire an investigator, the lawyers and police embarked on a more intensive inquiry.

Police Chief Lou Dekmar said he was troubled by how weak the original evidence against Talley appears. Investigators also uncovered information about a new “person of interest,” said Dekmar, who joined the department 25 years ago.

The man hasn’t been named publicly, but a court filing says he worked in the local government back then and was accused of harassing women at LaGrange College, the small private Methodist school where the attacks started. The alleged harassment occurred at the same time as the string of assaults. But prosecutors violated Talley’s rights by failing to tell the defense about the worker, Talley’s attorneys say.

In February, detectives obtained a warrant for the man’s DNA, the police chief said. A test is pending.

Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herb Cranford agreed to not oppose a motion for Talley’s release after the renewed investigation raised questions about the convictions.

Cranford said his decision shouldn’t be considered a “repudiation of the victims” or an endorsement of Talley’s innocence in the whole case. The DA, who took office in 2018, said he feels the evidence against Talley was sufficient in two cases where he was convicted of aggravated assault with intent to rape and sentenced to 20 years, which he long ago served. Still, Talley’s attorneys vowed to work to change the DA’s mind on those two cases.

“How does an innocent Black man get convicted of a series of brutally violent crimes that he did not commit?” said Clare Gilbert, the Georgia Innocence Project’s executive director. “The answer lies in the power of tainted eyewitness identification, a blinding determination by the state to convict, and systemic racial bias.”

The attacks

On the afternoon of Feb. 7, 1981, a student was in her dorm at LaGrange College, a stately old school with rolling green lawns, when a man grabbed her from behind, choked her and put a pillowcase over her head. “If you tell anyone, I will kill you,” he said. She fought and escaped before he could rape her.

A second attack followed exactly two weeks later in the same dormitory. The woman couldn’t break the man’s grip. He dislocated her jaw, raped her and said, “If you scream, I’ll kill you.”

On a campus known more for typical collegiate rowdiness than real danger, students locked their doors and looked over their shoulders. After the attacks in the dorm, a third student was assaulted in the basement of a church where she worked. Three more women said they were attacked off campus, two at homes, one at a hospital.

In July 1981, LaGrange's then-police chief Gary Sheperd told the LaGrange Daily News about the patterns between sexual assaults that were happening at LaGrange College. Courtesy of the Troup County Archives

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In 1981, police saw patterns in the victims’ descriptions of the perpetrator in five of the cases: a youngish Black man with a short afro who tended to approach women from behind, then choke, threaten and rape or try to rape them. One victim was Black, the others white.

Talley was 23 years old when picked up by officers after offering an Asian woman $20 for sex at her home months earlier. He was charged with simple battery, accused of grabbing her arm before apologizing and leaving. Talley admitted making the crude offer, but denied attacking the woman. Later, after cops named Talley as suspect in the sexual assaults, the charges would be upgraded to aggravated assault with intent to rape.

3 days

Detectives, under pressure to catch an apparent serial rapist, arranged a series of in-person lineups.

Victims and people who lived near the crime scenes looked at the men, within minutes of each other, and identified Talley. Nearly all of them previously had identified other suspects, according to Talley’s attorneys. The local government employee was not included in these lineups.

“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,” said Gilbert, the Georgia Innocence Project leader, noting that witness misidentifications are present in 70% of DNA exoneration cases.

On a Monday in November 1981, a jury deliberated 15 minutes after a one-day trial and convicted Talley of one rape. On Tuesday, in a separate trial, he was convicted in another rape. He awoke Wednesday already with multiple life sentences and more trials scheduled right away. Instead, Talley pleaded guilty in the four remaining cases because he felt he had no chance of acquittal, his attorneys said, and he was tired of seeing his family sob in the courtroom.

When Talley was hauled away that day, he had four life sentences.

The cases, unraveling

Talley’s sister, Robin Burks, recalls the sadness that followed, hovering around the family like an unwelcome guest.

In prison, Talley called home to check on family and friends and loved when they visited, encouraging him to hang on. He sent them poetry.

One poem was about what he wanted in life: a wife, kids, a house, a dog, a car and to go home. He wanted to grow his family, but instead his list of loved ones began to shrink as the years slid by, until he didn’t even know how many people he’d lost.

Terry Talley in a photo he sent home from prison in the mid-2000s. Family photo

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In 2004, Talley wrote in desperation to the Georgia Innocence Project. Attorneys there agreed to represent him, but exoneration is slow and devilishly difficult work. Talley could obtain four life sentences in 72 hours, but overturning them seemed unlikely.

A few years later, the Georgia Innocence Project won testing on the only surviving rape kit, which was from the second jury trial. The DNA on the kit wasn’t Talley’s. (The kit hadn’t originally been tested because DNA testing wouldn’t be discovered until 1985.) The conviction was overturned, allowing him to shed one life sentence, but he remained under indictment, subject to a new trial if authorities chose.

The LaGrange Police Department assisted with the DNA test and stayed in communication with the nonprofit. In 2017, the agency decided to reopen the entire investigation after a review of the evidence, according to the police chief.

Rare as it is for police to reopen a 40-year-old case, Dekmar said it’s what agencies should do if involved in what might be a wrongful conviction.

“We have an obligation,” he said, “to evaluate those convictions and that evidence.”

Investigators requested a DNA sample in 2017 from the man now under scrutiny. He refused, Dekmar said.

Faced with the warrant last week, the man had no choice.

Police Chief Lou Dekmar goes through letters and emails he received after he publicly apologized for the lynching of Austin Callaway more than 75 years ago, at LaGrange Police Department on Thursday, March 2, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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‘A free man’

When Talley emerged from Dooly State Prison, his attorney drove him home to LaGrange.

Talley’s mother had often said she wanted to see her son free before she died. Now she saw him in the living room. She is 82.

The house hummed with joy. The Lord was praised. Hugs were tight and cherished.

There was sadness, too. Talley asked about old friends. One after another, he learned of their deaths.

The losses hurt, but for the first time in years, Talley’s gained something profound.

“Look where I’m at now,” he had said outside the prison on his 14,462nd and final day of incarceration.

“A free man.” He looked toward the sun. “A free man.”

Terry Talley was released from Dooly State Prison in Unadilla, Ga. in late February after 40 years of imprisonment for a series of Lagrange sexual assaults he insists he didn't commit. Authorities agreed to his release.

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HOW WE GOT THE STORY: The AJC traveled to South Georgia to document Terry Talley’s hard-won released from prison after 40 years. He’d been convicted in six 1981 sexual assault cases in LaGrange, but always insisted he was innocent. To detail the case and the extraordinary turn of events that led to his release, the newspaper conducted interviews, reviewed old news clippings. The AJC also reviewed original case files from the assaults, as well as court transcripts and various other official records. Police and the district attorney declined to comment on details of the renewed investigation.