In the shadow of an execution that became an international cause, a three-judge panel in North Carolina found two inmates innocent of a crime they had been imprisoned for 10 years ago. They had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2000 but maintained their innocence as they served their sentences.
The judges heard the case after the two men made a successful claim to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission this spring. The exonerations came after seven days of testimony in the matter.
The commission was established by the Legislature in 2005 for just this kind of case. The defendants said they pleaded guilty at the urging of counsel and family when prosecution raised the specter of the death penalty. While they were serving their sentences, DNA evidence and the confession of another man came to light.
According to the Innocence Project, the mere threat of the death penalty can be enough to wrest a guilty plea from a suspect. A representative from the organization explains that 14 inmates threatened with the death penalty have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing since 1989. All but one confessed or pleaded guilty.
Prosecutors disagree down the line. They say the commission is redundant — the appeals process should take care of these claims. They are backing legislation to exclude inmates who have pleaded guilty from petitioning the commission.
And they especially disagree with people who accuse them of executing innocent men.
The man who was executed in Georgia appealed his conviction for 20 years, says a representative from the National District Attorneys Association. The U.S. Supreme Court heard his case.
Still, the man maintained his innocence up to the end. The very end.
Source: Raleigh News & Observer, “N.C.’s innocence inquiries stand out as execution proceeds,” Martha Waggoner and Tom Breen, Sept. 25, 2011