Greensboro, North Carolina
Greensboro News & Record

And justice for all?

Had the North Carolina Supreme Court not been compelled to stay his execution, Henry Lee Hunt's life would have ended before today's N.C. Actual Innocence Commission began.

The court issued Hunt's stay Wednesday so it can hear arguments in April on the constitutionality of his indictment. Meanwhile, Gov. Mike Easley this week was hearing clemency appeals for Hunt. Neither the governor, the court, nor the rest of the state can be certain Hunt deserves to die.

Because North Carolina has punished others under similarly uncertain circumstances, recommendations from the Commission's judges and criminal justice experts on ways to avoid wrongful convictions are at once visionary and sadly overdue.

Mistakes made in death cases like Hunt's are the same ones that corrode criminal trials and result in false convictions for lesser crimes. But the the finality of the punishment only magnifies the failures.

Consider: Police first arrested another man, A.R. Barnes, for the two murders charged to Hunt. Barnes failed a polygraph test (making him a likelier suspect), then confessed and offered evidence consistent with the crime scene. Later, Barnes recanted and implicated Hunt. Police chose to believe Barnes' second statements.

During Hunt's trial, prosecutors withheld evidence -- such as an informant's statement implicating other men and removing Hunt's motive for one murder - that would have undermined their case. After the trial, investigators simply "lost" field notes and other files. The state still refuses to let lawyers see what evidence remains. Hunt's lawyers, with minimal time to prepare, failed to raise crucial objections (such as pointing out that dirt on a shovel prosecutors offered as evidence did not match that of the victim's grave), meaning that many facts could not be revisited later.

In short, Hunt may have been wrongly convicted, the kind of mistake the commission's proposals could prevent without taxing or hindering law enforcement.

Some members have suggested doing away with line-ups, where victims or witnesses "finger" the perpetrators - too often, erroneously. Reformers want a person unconnected to the case to present pictures one at a time so the prosecution and defense later can be sure there was no subtle coercion or steering toward the chief suspect.

Expanding the SBI crime lab would alleviate the shameful neglect of samples from rape victims and crime scenes.

Reformers also ought to look at taping whole interrogations as opposed to just confessions. As the Central Park jogger case recently proved, suggesting something to someone who can't leave for 21 hours can make even the innocent confess. Moreover, taping confessions would cut down on coerced statements and confessions, protecting both suspects and police.

Refreshingly, refining the justice system is a concept that unites both conservatives and liberals. Polls have shown that even capital punishment supporters and victims' advocates don't want innocent people executed.

If implementing these changes would make such errors more rare, bring them on.

Note:  Henry Lee Hunt was executed by the State of North Carolina on September 13, 2003.

Death Penalty Issues
Innocent Imprisoned

Truth in Justice