CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A new, one-of-a-kind commission already has a full agenda of requests from North Carolina prisoners to review their cases and hear their pleas of innocence.
The Innocence Inquiry Commission is due to meet for the first time next month. The panel, created by Gov. Mike Easley last summer, is the nation's first independent panel created to review claims of wrongful convictions.
Already, it has requests from 75 convicts - imprisoned on convictions for murder, rape, kidnapping, assault and other felonies - to hear their cases. The claims must be based on new evidence.
The panel was created after several high-profile cases in the past few years showed people convicted in North Carolina courts were actually innocent.
"We've got a good criminal justice system. The best," said former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly Lake Jr. "But we're not perfect."
Lake pushed for the commission's creation, though he doesn't believe hundreds of innocent people are trapped in cells across the state. Still, he expects as many as 10 cases will be passed along each year for the commission to investigate.
"It'll be good for the innocence commission to get to the truth," Lake said. "That's what we're trying to achieve in every case. We're trying to attain justice. This commission will help improve the public's trust and confidence in our criminal justice system."
The commission's staff has yet to be hired, and in the meantime Christine Mumma of the Chief Justice's Criminal Justice Study Commission is supervising initial screening of innocence claims.
Those that are found to have merit will be forwarded for more investigation to the commission's staff, which will then decide which cases should go before the eight-member commission.
At least five of the eight members must agree that sufficient evidence of innocence exists to merit judicial review. If there is, the case will go to a three-judge panel.
That panel has the final say on the claim, and can either throw out the charges or, if its vote is not unanimous, reject the claim. There is no appeal.
Mumma said she doesn't expect an avalanche of overturned convictions. She said one in 10 claims have provable merit.
"They are needles in the haystack, and it's going to mean we're hopefully going to uncover some of those needles in the haystack, not only because there's innocent people in prison, but because the true perpetrators (are) on the street," Mumma said.
Until now, wrongful conviction claims have been pursued individually in court appeals or petitions through the existing legal framework.
The new commission has the authority to subpoena evidence and compel testimony from witnesses, including the convicted felons, and will have access to all evidence in the case. Mumma said those legal powers will help the panel dig for the truth where other efforts have come up short.
"I was convinced some prisoners were innocent," said Mumma, who also executive director of the North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence in Durham. "But there was nothing we could do. We couldn't get access to documents or witnesses, or we were told the evidence we needed no longer existed."
The commission won't review legal issues surrounding trials, such as challenges to jury selection. If it uncovers investigation that the claimants committed other crimes, that will be turned over to prosecutors.
"You better be innocent of what you were convicted of and also of any related crimes," she said.