The North Carolina justice system has made national news again, but it is hard to say how the story affects the system’s credibility. On the plus side is the Superior Court’s ruling that two long-time prisoners are, in fact, innocent. On the minus side is the fact that they were convicted in the first place.
The two men, half-brothers, were convicted of a particularly troubling murder 30 years ago, when they were just 15 and 19 years old. Officers only picked them up in the first place because a “confidential informant” — a 17-year-old classmate — gave them a “tip.” It turned out the tip was based on rumors the girl had heard at school.
Once in police custody, the two suspects were subjected to hours of questioning. Neither had an attorney or a parent present. After five hours of officers “hollering” and “threatening” them, they both confessed. Police prepared confessions for them that implicated one another and pointed the finger at a number of others as accomplices.
The interrogation and forced confessions are all the more unsettling because both of the suspects had — and still have — intellectual disabilities. Both of the suspects were also barely literate. Defense attorneys argued these points strenuously before and during the trial, but to no avail.
There were new trials for both about five years after their initial convictions. The result was that one, the younger of the two, was taken off death row and sentenced to life in prison instead.
In 2009, the older man petitioned the Innocence Inquiry Commission for help. The commission’s investigation turned up new evidence: DNA on a cigarette butt from the crime scene. The DNA belonged to another prisoner, a prisoner convicted of a similar crime that was committed just weeks after the one in this case. That prisoner has maintained that the two men convicted of the crime were innocent while he has remained silent on his own innocence in the first crime.
The outcome reinforces the importance of North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission. Forensic science has advanced significantly in the last 30 years. Crime investigators have powerful tools at their command that can help the wrongfully accused, whether they were convicted 30 years ago or are sitting in jail today, praying for justice.
Source: Washington Post, “After 30 years in prison, two mentally challenged men exonerated in North Carolina rape-murder case,” Lindsey Bever, Sept. 3, 2014