Innocence Commission: Saving Lives, Under Fire, Part 3 - Sparrow Law Firm

We’ve been talking about the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and proposed legislation that would change how the commission operates. The bill’s supporters claim the changes are needed because the commission wasn’t designed to pick up cases that “fall through the cracks.”

One man who pleaded guilty to murder 10 years ago would disagree.

The man was arrested in connection with a home invasion that ended in the murder of the homeowner. Detectives had also arrested five other men for the crime, and as they waited for the suspects to turn on one another, each was faced with a difficult choice.

A few chose to implicate the man now serving 12 years. His lawyer now regrets his role in what happened next.

Having been identified as the trigger man by other suspects, the defendant faced two equally unpleasant alternatives. First, go to trial and risk a guilty verdict and a death sentence. Second, plead guilty to murder and spend some time in prison. He took the latter.

But he immediately asked the court to retract his guilty plea. The judge said no. So, for the next few years, he wrote to judges, court clerks, the district attorney’s office and lawyers around the state. No response.

He didn’t give up. In 2008, he wrote another letter, this one asking a judge to help reopen his case. He caught a break: The judge asked the district attorney’s office — in the county where he’d pleaded guilty — to follow up.

The DA’s office said they would run DNA tests on three other men implicated in the crime this man had been jailed for. Two years later, the defendant was still waiting for the test results. The tests were never performed.

In an overworked system, it is sadly easy for evidence to be missed. For this man, one key piece of evidence was a bandana with a saliva stain that the SBI crime lab had tested. The crime lab said the stain didn’t match any of the six suspects. The report was sent to the DA’s office a full month before this man took the plea deal.

That report never made it to the defense attorney.

We’ll continue the story in our next post.

Source: News & Observer, “Prosecutors would limit access to N.C. innocence panel,” Mandy Locke, 05/08/2011