Innocence Commission: Saving Lives and Under Fire

in Criminal Defense, on

The North Carolina House of Representatives hasn’t moved on the bill since early April, but there it sits in committee, future uncertain. Supported by the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, the bill would limit the powers of the state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission in a few significant ways. For anyone in the position of one man who pleaded guilty to a murder charge but claimed innocence from the beginning, the proposal could prove devastating.

The General Assembly established the commission in 2006 specifically to examine claims of innocence. As it stands today, any felon can make a claim of factual innocence to the agency. The claim does not have to come from a court or a government agency; the defendant himself or a member of his family can file the claim.

The commission may or may not order an inquiry. When an inquiry is completed, the commission will hear the evidence in formal proceedings. The hearing may include witness testimony — and if the testimony incriminates the witness or shows that the witness testified falsely in an earlier judicial proceeding on the matter, the district attorney cannot prosecute.

Five or more members of the eight-member panel must agree that the facts they’ve heard warrant further judicial review. In cases where the defendant entered a plea of guilty, the entire panel must agree.

The case then moves to a three-judge panel for review. The panel may hear all evidence related to the claim, even if the evidence was included in prior judicial proceedings. All three of the judges must agree that the defendant has proved by clear and convincing evidence that he or she is innocent. If they agree, the panel enters a dismissal of the charges. If not, the panel denies relief.

Finally, if the defendant is found innocent of all charges, he or she may seek compensation without getting a pardon from the governor.

We’ll discuss how prosecutors want to change the law in our next post.

Source: General Assembly of North Carolina, House Bill 778, April 7, 2011