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North Carolina creates a new route to exoneration

An official innocence commission can revisit death penalty convictions.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 10, 2006


Eighty-five percent of all executions in the US take place in the South.

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For that reason alone, anti-death penalty activists claimed a major victory when North Carolina last week became the first state in the union to establish a government commission that will review evidence and, if warranted, send a recommendation of innocence to a three-judge panel.

The creation of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission fits in with a broader national inquiry into the moral responsibility of legal executions. In North Carolina, it was primarily those who work inside the justice system who helped bring about the commission.

It's an idea with appeal: Lawmakers in at least 12 other states – including Texas, where nearly half of all executions take place each year – are considering filing similar legislation next year, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"North Carolina is now the center of gravity in the death penalty debate," says David Elliot of the coalition. "That's significant because the death penalty increasingly is a Southern phenomenon."

There are 188 convicts in North Carolina on death row. After the high-profile exonerations of death row inmate Alan Gell and "lifer" Darryl Hunt in the state, a judicial review committee found a proliferation of both large and small mistakes that cast a shadow on the state's justice system. For one: 80 percent of freed prisoners were exonerated because of faulty eyewitness accounts. That opened some eyes, including those of then-Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake.

"We realized we had a problem and that we needed to take a look at what was causing these wrongful convictions and how we might correct the mistakes that were being made," says Judge Lake, a conservative jurist and death penalty supporter who led the reform effort.

The commission, signed into law by Gov. Mike Easley (D) last Thursday, is expected to convene in November.

The state's two top justices – the chiefs of the state Supreme Court and state Appeals Court – will appoint a panel that the law says must include a member of the general public, a sheriff, a victims' advocate, a criminal defense lawyer, a prosecutor, and a state Superior Court judge. The commission will also have a full staff, including two investigators, who will pore through applications.

Judge Lake says perhaps 30 percent of cases will have enough merit to warrant further investigation. Perhaps 10 percent will receive a commission hearing.

"Certainly there will be a flood, but most of them will be screened out immediately," says state Rep. Joe Hackney (D), an architect of the committee that led to the commission's creation. "There'll be a few that get investigated, even fewer where there's relief granted. Maybe even none."

Five of eight commissioners must agree to pass it on to a three-judge panel, which has to vote unanimously to exonerate a convicted inmate. The commission will look at new evidence that's come to light since the trial, but will not consider legal technicalities. It can take years of appeals in many states before the appellate system looks at evidence that was not introduced to the jury at trial.