N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission

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New state commission helps the innocent

The Kinston Free Press
August 13, 2006

RALEIGH A joke often told by people who work with inmates is that everyone behind bars is innocent. If you dont believe it, just ask them.

Humor notwithstanding, innocent people do get convicted. And innocent people do serve time in prison, as evidenced by high-profile cases that have come to light in recent years.

Beginning Nov. 1, people who profess their innocence will have an additional tool in their effort to win their freedom and get their record cleared. They'll be able to ask for a review by the newly created North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which could lead to their exoneration.

The commission is the brainchild of a study group created by former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr.

had several very high-profile exonerations in North Carolina, said Lake, who reached mandatory retirement age earlier this year. I was reading about where you had these high profile exonerations after people had been in prison for a number of years. You really cant compensate somebody for the loss of their freedom with money.

Lake helped shepherd the commission bill through the General Assembly, even after his retirement. He said he believes placeStateNorth Carolina has a truly wonderful criminal justice system. But he admits that its not perfect.

It always behooves us to improve our system, no matter how good it is.

Were groundbreaking, said Dick Taylor, CEO of the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers, noting that North Carolina is the first state in the country to have such a commission.

The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission will have eight members appointed by the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court and chief judge of the N.C. Court of Appeals. The members will include a superior court judge, a prosecuting attorney, a victims advocate and a criminal defense lawyer.

One seat is reserved for a member of the public who is not an attorney and is not an officer or employee of the Judicial Department of government. Another is reserved for a sheriff or the sheriffs designee. The remaining two seats would be filled at the discretion of the chief justice.

Rep. Joe Kiser, R-Lincoln, thinks the commission is unnecessary. Kiser, a former sheriff, said that people who are innocent already have ways of setting the record straight.

When new evidence comes up, people can get new trials now, Kiser said. In some cases, they're just set free If new evidence is found, the court system that we have today works.

said the fact that people are being exonerated shows that the present court system is working.

Taylor counters that one of those exonerated, Darryl Hunt of Winston-Salem, served more than 18 years in prison for a murder and rape that he didn't commit. It was only after Hunt convinced the local district attorney that he was innocent that the courts granted him relief.

And, Taylor adds, nearly 30,000 people are in prison now who were convicted before open discovery laws took effect. Open discovery laws allow defense attorneys to have access to nearly all the information contained in police and prosecutor files.

The exonerations, in great part, came about because of information found in those files, Taylor said.

Under the new law, people who claim they're innocent can apply to the commission if they have new evidence that might exonerate them, evidence that the jury didn't hear.

The convicted person must waive all procedural safeguards, such as Fifth Amendment rights of self-incrimination, before a formal inquiry can begin. The commission is allowed to dismiss the request if it feels the defendant is not being cooperative.

If five of the eight members of the commission believe there is sufficient factual evidence of innocence, the commission can refer the case to a three-judge panel for judicial review. It would be up to the three-judge panel to decide if the convicted person has proved by clear and convincing evidence that he or she was innocent.

Such a determination would require a unanimous vote of the three judges.

In cases in which the defendant had pleaded guilty, a unanimous vote would be required before the commission passed the case on to the three-judge panel.

Lake said it was important to include people who claim innocence despite pleading guilty because a significant number about 5 percent of people exonerated had actually entered guilty pleas.

Why would a person plead guilty to a crime that he didn't commit?

The interrogation could have been such that a confession was forced, Lake said, adding that others could have been confused or were seeking publicity. Others, he said, would plead guilty to a lesser charge because they were convinced that if they didn't receive the death penalty.

The law requires the commissions staff to use all due diligence to notify the crime victims of its proceedings.

It also suggests that the commission give a priority to people currently serving prison time for crimes they say they didn't commit. While claims of innocence can be filed with the commission beginning Nov. 1, people who pleaded guilty would have to wait until Nov. 1, 2008, to file their claims with the commission.

Barry Smith can be reached at bsmith@link.freedom.com.

Profiles of innocence

Four people from North Carolina who served time in prison and were later found to be innocent

Lesly Jean, a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune, was wrongly convicted of raping a woman in Jacksonville in July 1982. The U.S. Court of Appeals ordered his release in 1991. After a 2001 DNA test proved he didn't do the crime, Gov. Mike Easley gave Jean a pardon of innocence.

Ronald Cotton was sent to prison for a July 1984 rape that he didn't commit in Burlington. DNA evidence proved Cottons innocence. He was released after serving 10 and one-half years in prison. In July 1995, Gov. Jim Hunt pardoned Cotton.

Darryl Hunt of Winston-Salem served more than 18 years in prison for a racially charged rape and murder that he did not commit. In December 2003, after DNA evidence showed that another man did the crime, Hunt was released from prison. Two months later, he was exonerated of all charges in the case.

Alan Gell served nine years in prison, nearly half of it on death row, for a 1995 murder he did not commit in Bertie County. A new trial was ordered in 2002 after a judge ruled that prosecutors withheld evidence that could exonerate him. A jury acquitted Gell of the murder charge in 2004.

Source: Freedom Raleigh Bureau

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