Hickory City Council unanimously awarded $3.25 million on Wednesday to a man who served 24 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.
Willie Grimes was convicted in 1988 of raping a 69-year-old Hickory woman in her apartment and was sentenced to life plus nine years.
During his original trial, prosecutors said a strand of hair belonging to a black man had been found on the victim. But the hair was never positively identified in court as Grimes’ hair, just the hair of an African-American man.
Grimes said he was more than a mile and a half away from the crime scene at a house with friends, who all testified in court that Grimes had been with them that night. Other evidence never made it into the courtroom for jurors to hear, including fingerprints.
Grimes was paroled in 2012 while still maintaining his innocence. His case was investigated by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency that hears post-conviction claims of innocence.
An analyst testified before the commission that the fingerprints matched a different man, who had a lengthy record, including assault on a female. That man was in a Lenoir nursing home by 2012. Other evidence inexplicably disappeared, even though no one found any court order to destroy it. The Hickory Police Department found the fingerprint cards after the commission began investigating.
The commission decided unanimously that enough credible evidence of innocence existed to refer Grimes’ case to a three-judge panel, which then exonerated him.
“Free at last, free at last,” Judge David Lee said in 2012, paraphrasing the famous 1963 speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Thank God almighty, thank Jehovah. Willie James Grimes is free at last.”
In 2014, Grimes filed a lawsuit against the city and various officials .
That led to mediation and the settlement agreement approved by City Council on Wednesday. The settlement releases the defendants of all claims, officials said. The city will pay $2,250,650, while the city’s insurance carrier, National Casualty, will be responsible for $999,350.