Local News

Man Prosecuted By Governor Now Seeks Pardon

Posted May 31, 2005

— A man who spent 20 years in prison after being falsely convicted of molesting a young girl wants his record cleared. But that could be a conflict of interest because of the governor's role in that conviction.

Sylvester Smith wants a formal pardon from Gov. Mike Easley, who sent him to prison as the Brunswick County District Attorney in 1984. Smith, 54, was released nearly seven months ago from prison after the charges were dropped.

"We're afraid there's probably a conflict of interest here," said David Mills, who works for the Common Sense Foundation, a non-partisan, statewide organization that provides research, commentary, and technical assistance about public policy.

"Clearly the governor had a real interest in putting Sylvester Smith behind bars 20 years ago, and it could be seen as egg on the governor's face to have to admit publicly that he did the wrong thing," Mills said.

"If the governor were to simply recuse himself, I'm not sure there would be anyone duly authorized to review Mr. Smith's pardon," said former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr, who now heads the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law.

While some say Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue should step in and make the call, Orr said a 2001 Supreme Court case, Bacon vs. Lee, puts the issue solely in the governor's control.

"I'm sure Gov. Easley or any governor takes that power and responsibility with great seriousness and reflection, and would put aside any prejudices or biases that conceivably could influence the decision," Orr said.

Smith had received two consecutive life sentences after two young girls testified that Smith sexually abused them. In July 2004, one of the victims, now in her mid-20s, implicated a male cousin.

Smith, who learned to be a brick mason while in prison, requested a pardon so that his criminal record can be expunged. He said his record made it difficult to get a job.

"It's been rough," he told the Star-News of Wilmington. "If I had a job, I'd feel much better. But every time I tell them I'm a felon, it sheds a different light on me."

He would also be allowed to apply to the N.C. Industrial Commission to receive compensation from the state -- as much as $400,000 -- for the time he spent in prison.

Easley, who received Smith's request in early December, said last week that his legal staff continues to review it.

Since Easley took office, he has granted just two pardons and denied 140. There are still 231 people on the pardon list waiting for his consideration. The oldest case dates back to a 1952 conviction for burglary in Wake County.


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