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Innocence Commission's founder wants changes

Posted June 3, 2010
Updated June 8, 2010

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— The founder of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission wants to make sweeping changes to the law that created the agency that helped exonerate a local man who spent 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Among those changes, retired state Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake proposes turning over the screening process of cases the Innocence Commission receives each year to a nonprofit student law group. The purpose, he says, is to reduce delays and get more cases through the agency.

"As we anticipated – and the General Assembly was concerned about this – we would get a tremendous flood of applications," Lake said. "We think that's an unnecessary burden on the commission staff."

I. Beverly Lake Innocence Commission's founder wants changes

Established in August 2006 to investigate and evaluate claims of factual innocence, the Innocence Commission is the only state-run agency that investigates and evaluates post-conviction claims of factual innocence.

According to its website, 756 case have made it into the screening process. Of those, 532 have been rejected, 224 are being investigated and three cases have gone before a three-member judicial panel.

One case – that of Gregory Taylor – ended with Taylor going free.

In an April 13 letter to the Innocence Commission staff, Lake expresses concerns about an "inappropriate use of state funds and waste of time and resources to review applications" – 98 percent of which were rejected "and never worth the Commission's time."

Although screening and investigating are Innocence Commission duties under the 2006 law, Lake says the staff has no business screening the estimated 1,000 applications each year. He wants the law to transfer most screening authority to the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, a nonprofit student group that also reviews claims of innocence.

Its director, Christine Mumma, helped Lake write the 2006 law authorizing the Innocence Commission.

"The concept of the Innocence Inquiry Commission was that they would investigate maybe 10 cases a year," Mumma said. "They wouldn't be involved in the screening and initial investigation of cases."

Mumma also represented Taylor at his innocence hearing earlier this year and has been involved in the release of other prison inmates who served time for crimes they didn't commit.

But some are concerned about shifting review of cases to Mumma and her group – a proposal the Innocence Commission's executive director opposes.

"If this concept of actual innocence is important to the state, I cannot imagine why you would not want these cases handled entirely by professional staff," Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly, a former Innocence Commission member, said.

"The executive director and the staff are not supposed to be advocates for individual defendants," he added. "I think she has been an advocate and her practical experience in the criminal justice system is extremely limited."

In an April 29 e-mail, Lake also lays out other changes to legislation concerning the Innocence Commission.

Among them, he wants future commission hearings to have access to not only new evidence but all evidence dating to the original trial.

Lake acknowledges this change would not be popular among some district attorneys who believe allowing all evidence is the equivalent of a retrial.

"(Wake County District Attorney) Colon Willoughby is against this," he said.

Kenerly said he believes allowing all evidence would open a Pandora's box and undermine the system of a trial by jury.

"It is arrogant for people removed from the case, at some later time, to think they can make a better decision on that evidence than 12 jurors made at the time of the original trial," Kenerly said.

Lake also wants to require that only two of three judges need to agree on a person's innocence.

And he wants to avoid media scrutiny prior to the three-judge panel sessions by closing to the public all hearings involving the eight-member Innocence Commission.

"We think it should encourage people to come forward," Lake said. "Also, the investigative report can be more forthcoming and open, I think, in a closed proceeding."

The Innocence Commission's executive director, Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, declined a request for an interview, but did provide the Commission's written opposition to most of Lake and Mumma's proposals.


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  • wayneuber Jun 7, 2010

    IMHO this "suggestion" only confirms my suspicions about the original intent of this commission. It is intended to create a publicly funded forum for convicted murderers to take their cases and try them outside the regular court system (in the media). Transferring this work to students, academics and amateurs will make their work even more questionable. Review should be performed within the court system (or abolished where it is redundant).

  • mncsdad Jun 4, 2010

    Official crime version?

  • Kolchackk Jun 4, 2010

    First I have to admit if there was new evidence presented in Gregory Taylor's hearing I am unaware of it. It is my understanding the Commission ordered his release based upon the State SBI Lab mishandling evidence. I have read the official crime version and in my opinion a guilty man was freed by this Commission and pardoned by the Governor.

  • ohmygosh Jun 4, 2010


    Perhaps your opinion would also change if one of the wrongly acquitted broke into your house and harmed you and your family.

  • G-man Jun 4, 2010

    Oh they have plenty to offer an inmate. Just the thought of a female sitting in the room with them will have them coming out of the woodwork. While I would agree that any innocent people in prison is bad. But with on any given day with some odd 40,000+ or so incarcerated 1 or 2 innocent people in that group shows the system works pretty well.

  • mncsdad Jun 4, 2010

    The students you are referring to work very hard to establish justice in a system they are preparing to enter. When they interview someone they have nothing to offer that person and are only interested in seeking out the truth. If you want to address the real "JOKE" look no further than your DA's office or local police department. Where the real deals are made for lies. Where "say this and we will reduce your time" is standard operating procedure".
    The center which Christine Mumma leads not only works to free the wrongfully convicted, but has worked to get several laws passed to prevent the wrongful convictions.
    For somebody to sit in a prison cell for a crime they did not commit is a crime. Every day of a sentence served for wrongful conviction is equivalent to being held hostage and tortured. If you or a member of you family were in this position, I'm sure you would fail to view it as a "JOKE".

  • itsmyownopinion Jun 4, 2010

    "... I'm more concerned about the guilty ones not in jail due to the system's protections than those who are "innocent" and in jail. ..." ohmygosh

    I bet your "concern" would change if you or yours were one of the innocent in jail.

  • withnailharrison Jun 4, 2010

    Let me get this straight. You are suggesting that as long as we get the bad guys behind bars, it's ok to get a few innocents in there as well? Is that really what you are suggesting? If not, please clarify. That's a pretty frightening proposition.

  • Always160 Jun 4, 2010

    They have only freed 1 person not 2. And Christine Mumma is too interested in flirting and flaunting herself in front of male inmates or the recently freed to care about real Justice. Her students are a JOKE...these people harass people until they sign affidavits that aren't true just to get them to go away and when they won't sign them...her students just type one up and put in whatever she says! This whole commission is a JOKE!!

  • superman Jun 4, 2010

    I worked in prison for 30 years. During that time I never had the occasion to talk to any inmate who admitted that he was guilty including the ones on death row. Most of them wanted a bible the first day they were in prison and found religion. After several years evidence in a crime seems to disappear and some of the witnesses pass away-- making it even more difficult to prove the case again.