According to its website, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission has received 1,661 claims since its inception in 2007. As of January 2014, the commission has conducted hearings on just six of those claims, and only four of those resulted in exonerations. That number may change soon.
Willie Womble has been in prison for 38 years for the murder of a convenience store clerk in 1975. Like so many others, Womble has steadfastly maintained his innocence. The commission agreed to hear his claim, and this week the eight-member panel heard his story.
Womble admitted that he had signed a confession, but he told the commission that Durham Police Department officers had beaten him and threatened him with the death penalty if he did not sign the document. Womble said, too, that he is illiterate and had no idea what the document said; in fact, even though he had signed the confession, he later refused to plead guilty.
The commission heard other testimony supporting Womble’s claim of innocence. The panel was reminded that a witness to the crime could not identify him at trial, and a friend told the panel that Womble was with her and her husband the weekend of the crime.
By law, however, the commission can only consider claims that include new evidence of “complete factual innocence.” In Womble’s case, that new evidence came from an unlikely source.
Joseph Perry was also convicted of the crime. After a third man died in 2012, Perry wrote to the commission. He had committed the crime, he said, but Womble had not. The man who had died was Perry’s companion that day. Womble was innocent.
It took the panel just an hour to agree unanimously (as required by law) that the case should move forward. Now, the state’s chief justice will appoint a three-judge panel to hear the case. While the chief justice has a 30-day deadline, the panel has no deadline — it could be months before Womble’s case moves forward.
Source: WRAL, “Innocence Commission recommends judicial review of 1976 murder conviction,” Amanda Lamb, June 3, 2014