Raleigh, N.C. — Add the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission to the list of state agencies seeking more money in the state budget.
Lawmakers haven't formalized their initial spending plans for 2015-16, but they already know the court system is hurting for money, teachers have been promised another raise, the state crime lab needs help catching up on a backlog of evidence waiting to be tested, prisons need more resources to handle mentally ill inmates and upgrades must be made to the medical examiner system.
The Innocence Commission wants $100,000 added to its $533,765 state appropriation to cover DNA testing and scientific experts. Currently, only $8,500 of the commission's budget is set aside for DNA tests and another $6,421 for consulting with experts.
"It does not come very cheap," Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, executive director of the commission, said of DNA testing.
Last year, for example, the commission spent $86,405 on tests to exonerate Leon Brown and Henry McCollum, half-brothers who spent 30 years in prison for the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Robeson County. Another $53,650 was spent on tests in the case of Joseph Sledge, who was cleared in January of the 1976 stabbing deaths of a Bladen County mother and her adult daughter.
"Some of this evidence has been completely untested. It's been sitting in storage for 30-some years, and it's never been looked at," Montgomery-Blinn said. "It can provide the truth. It can provide the answers to the cases that we can’t always get in other investigative avenues."
The commission has relied on a federal grant for the past three years to cover most of its DNA testing costs, but the grant runs out this year, and there's no guarantee another grant can be obtained. Montgomery-Blinn said the panel needs a more permanent funding solution.
"We know we’re not the only agency with a request," she said. "We’ve got the numbers to show how much we’re spending, and we are only asking for what we are spending.
"You can’t put a price tag on the work that the Innocence Inquiry Commission is doing," she added.
Key House members seem receptive to considering providing the commission with the $100,000 it needs – a tiny fraction of a budget that will top $21 billion.
“They have saved lives, of that we are all certain,” said Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, chairman of the House Judiciary I Committee. “We are doing everything we can to make sure they have the tools to continue their work."
“Certainly, it’s an important concern, and we will certainly consider it along the way,” said Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, chairman of the House Appropriations Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee.
One person lobbying for the budget increase is Greg Taylor, the first person freed by the Innocence Commission's work. Five years after being cleared of a Wake County murder, he is a computer programmer who loves spending time with his daughter and two grandsons.
"I sit here today, and I think, without that process, I would be in prison," Taylor said. "Nobody deserves to spend one day in prison if they’re innocent."