Los Angeles Times

North Carolina to Weigh Claims of Innocence
The state is the first to create a panel with the power to reconsider cases and send them to judges for review. It will start in the fall.

By Henry Weinstein, Times Staff Writer
August 4, 2006

North Carolina on Thursday became the first state to create an innocence commission, giving inmates who claim they were wrongly convicted a chance for freedom after their court appeals have failed.

Gov. Michael F. Easley, a former prosecutor and attorney general, signed the measure into law after it passed both houses of the Legislature by wide margins.

"Its creation gives our criminal justice system yet another safeguard by helping ensure that the people in our prisons in fact belong there," Easley, a Democrat, said in a statement.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which is to begin its work in the fall, is patterned after one created in Britain in 1997.

The panel will have eight members who are empowered to subpoena records and witnesses and can consider new evidence not presented in court. If five of the commission members find that a claim of innocence deserves review, the case will be sent to a panel of three state Superior Court judges. Those jurists then would have to decide unanimously that an inmate was actually innocent in order for the conviction to be overturned.

Until now, inmates in North Carolina — as in many other states — were unable to make free-standing claims of innocence. In order to get relief from a court, an inmate had to show prosecutorial misconduct or some other legal error.

North Carolina created the commission after a three-year study launched by its Supreme Court's then-chief justice, I. Beverly Lake Jr., a conservative Republican who became concerned after several high-profile convictions were overturned.

"I think it will be a significant step forward for the criminal justice system in North Carolina and across the nation," Lake, who retired from the state's highest court in February, said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I think other states may follow suit."

California is one of several states examining the issue of wrongful convictions. A commission in California has recommended that eyewitness identification procedures be changed and that all interrogations of felony suspects in custody be electronically recorded. But no state has gone as far as North Carolina.

Richard Rosen, a University of North Carolina law professor who served on Lake's review commission, said Thursday's action "acknowledges the problem of wrongful convictions and the reality we face that courts do not always do a good job of correcting that problem."

The study group — which included trial judges, prosecutors, police chiefs, leaders of victim assistance groups, defense lawyers and law professors — "established very early that the purpose of the commission was not to give either prosecutors or the defense any advantage," Rosen said. "Our sole purpose was to help the innocent and not appreciably lessen the ability to convict."

Among the cases the panel examined was that of Ronald Cotton, who had been sentenced to life in prison plus 54 years on a rape conviction. He served 10 1/2 years before being cleared in 1995 by DNA testing.

Jennifer Thompson, the victim who mistakenly identified Cotton, has spoken out about the potential for erroneous eyewitness identification.

Lesly Jean, a convicted rapist, also served nearly a decade in a North Carolina prison before he too was cleared by DNA evidence. State Assemblyman Richard B. Glazier, a Democrat who served as Jean's lawyer for nine years, introduced the legislation that created the new innocence commission.

Glazier said that his experience representing Jean taught him "the human frailties of the system and of the need to have a fail-safe when we make an error."

The British commission has reviewed about 8,500 cases since 1997 and has sent more than 300 of those back to court. About 220 verdicts have been reversed as a result of that commission's work.

According to the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, 183 prisoners in the United States have been exonerated since 1986 as a result of DNA testing — including 14 who were on death row. And since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, 123 inmates convicted of capital crimes have been freed from prison after a court found they were wrongfully convicted.

Innocence Projects
Truth in Justice