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North Carolina creates a new route to exoneration

An official innocence commission can revisit death penalty convictions.

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"The innocence commission is a response to the fact that our system doesn't have a process for reevaluating the innocence or guilt of somebody who has been convicted," says Sam Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School. "There's a hole in the middle of the process."

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But critics say that many states – including Texas – have laws that allow such "actual innocence" claims to be litigated early on in the appeals process. Many death penalty proponents – and critics – agree that there's no irrefutable proof that any innocent person has been executed in the US since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Proponents say this proves the system works.

Prosecutors, too, wonder whether the commission will work. An early proposal, which would have allowed those who pleaded guilty in court to claim innocence, was changed so that they will have to wait two years to apply.

"Everybody in prison says they're innocent, so our concern was that if you open it up to all guilty pleas, it would swamp the commission before it ever got started," says Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys in Raleigh.

Some see the innocence commission as a victory for activists in one of the busiest death penalty states among the 37 that allow capital punishment. Dozens of communities and hundreds of businesses and churches have called for a moratorium on the death penalty.

The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill "Triangle," a politically left-leaning part of the state, has become a wellspring for activists. At North Carolina's Central Prison in Raleigh – the site of death row and the execution chamber – protesters have engaged in acts of civil disobedience in the driveway to the prison.

Yet even some activists who oppose the death penalty have concerns about the motivations behind the new commission.

"[Commission members] all have their own biases, so how fair is it going to be?" says Scott Langley, an activist in Raleigh. "Time will tell."

For some, the new law offers renewed hope. Roberta and Elmer McNeill have been fighting for 13 years to free their son, Elmer Ray McNeill Jr., who they say is innocent despite his conviction for the murder of two grocery store clerks in an armed robbery.

At a recent gathering at a Raleigh church, the McNeills told a small group of activists that the prosecutor tricked the judge and later met jurors for lunch during the trial. If so, that would be grounds for an appeal.

Said John Strange, of the People of Faith Against the Death Penalty: "I imagine that when you tell friends or you tell strangers this story, they don't believe you."

"No, they don't," said Ms. McNeill.

Perhaps now somebody will. The McNeills say they will be among the first to file papers when the commission opens.

Jesse DeConto in Chapel Hill, N.C., contributed to this report.

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