Innocence Commission: Saving Lives, Under Fire, Part 2 - Sparrow Law Firm

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission was created in 2006 as an adjunct to the state’s justice system. The commission investigates and evaluates post-conviction claims of factual innocence for felons convicted of any criminal offense. Claimants must prove the felon’s complete innocence with new factual evidence.

In our last post, we reviewed the current law, using the statute as our guide. (The commission’s website offers an excellent FAQ, as well.) Here, we want to review proposed legislation now sitting in the North Carolina House of Representatives that would dramatically change the powers of the commission.

Highlights of the bill include the following:

  • Only felons who pleaded not guilty or no contest would be able to make a claim; felons who had pleaded guilty would not be considered.
  • Only the trial court or the defendant, rather than anyone with evidence, may make a claim.
  • Witnesses would not be afforded immunity, nor would they be free from cross-examination by a prosecutor.
  • Significant evidence, rather than an allegation, of prosecutorial misconduct would be needed for the commission to ask that the case be sent to a special prosecutor.
  • The three-judge review panel would hear only new evidence; evidence considered in a prior proceeding would be excluded.
  • The burden of proof for judicial review would rise from clear and convincing evidence to beyond a reasonable doubt.

It’s important to note that HB 778 is heavily backed by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys. The president explains that the organization believes the commission is operating outside of its original mission. She told reporters that “it should not be used as a fail-safe for all the other problems in our system.” She added the following, as well: “If they’re just going to start picking up all the cases that fall through the cracks, well, that’s not their purpose.”

The comment begs the question: Who will pick up the cases that fall through the cracks?

The Raleigh News-Observer tells a story of a man whose case fell through the cracks. We’ll discuss it in our next post.

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