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Senate Approves Innocence Commission

Posted July 11, 2006

— Seeking to patch any holes in North Carolina's criminal justice system, the state Senate approved a bill Monday to create an "innocence commission" that could override a court to free a prisoner.

The eight-member commission would conduct inquiries into claims of innocence. A convicted criminal would have to petition the commission, citing new evidence that may prove a new verdict.

"It would restore the integrity and the public's confidence in the process," said Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg.

A criminal justice task force recommended the panel. The task force was formed in part because of the murder case of Darryl Hunt, who spent 18 years in prison for the slaying of a Winston-Salem woman before DNA evidence exonerated him.

If five of the eight members agree there is enough evidence, the case would be sent to a three-judge Superior Court panel. Charges would be dismissed if the judges unanimously determine there "is clear and convincing evidence" that the defendant is innocent.

Only one senator -- Hugh Webster -- dissented in the vote. He said lawmakers should work on fixing the justice system as it is now.

"We're saying it's not working, so we have to have this commission to catch and correct errors," said Webster, R-Alamance.

The Senate version, slightly different than a House bill passed last year, would bar defendants who pleaded guilty from going before the commission. And while the House would allow a split decision of a three-judge panel to be appealed to the state Supreme Court, there is no such provision in the Senate bill and it provides for no additional appeals.

The measure now returns to the House for concurrence.

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