by John E. Dannenberg
On August 3, 2006, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley signed into law H-1323, a bill creating an eight-member Innocence Commission wherein prisoners who have exhausted their court appeals but still claim they were wrongly convicted may reopen their convictions by offering new evidence not previously considered at trial. There is no time limit for this process. The Commission is the first of its kind in the U.S. and is modeled after a system begun in 1997 in the United Kingdom. Prisoners whose claims gain at least five votes from the Commission that the evidence shows a potential for proving innocence will have their cases forwarded to a panel of three state Superior Court judges. To overturn a conviction, the panel’s decision must be unanimous.
North Carolina’s conscience was rattled by the recent exposé of the wrongful convictions of Darryl Hunt (found innocent based upon DNA evidence after doing 18 years on a murder conviction) and Alan Gell (released from death row based upon evidence prosecutors deliberately withheld at his trial). Earlier, Ronald Cotton served 10 years on a life-plus-54-year rape conviction before being cleared by DNA testing in 1995, while Lesley Jean was DNA-cleared after serving 10 years on a false rape conviction.
Gov. Easley, himself a former prosecutor and attorney general, said “[The Commission]’s creation gives our criminal justice system yet another safeguard by helping ensure that the people in our prisons in fact belong there.” Former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice I. Beverly Lake lauded the new Commission as “a significant step forward for the criminal justice system.” University of North Carolina law professor Richard Rosen observed that H-1323 “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 Commission’s prospects are hopeful. From 8,500 cases reviewed, the U.K. commission sent 300 cases back to court, where 220 were reversed. The famed Innocence Project at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York reports that 183 U.S. prisoners have been cleared by DNA tests alone since 1986. More sobering yet is the report from the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., noting that since 1973, 123 condemned prisoners were freed by courts after they were wrongfully convicted.
Sources: H1323, Los Angeles Times.
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