Local News

Innocence advocate: 'I feel like I am a target'

Posted January 19, 2016 5:47 p.m. EST
Updated January 19, 2016 6:53 p.m. EST

— A lawyer who works to free wrongly convicted inmates said Tuesday that she is still reeling days after a disciplinary panel cleared her of the most serious allegations of wrongdoing leveled by the North Carolina State Bar.

Christine Mumma, the director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, was accused of violating the rules of professional conduct in the case of Joseph Sledge, who served almost 40 years for a double murder he didn't commit before he was exonerated and released from prison last January.

Mumma was seeking a DNA sample from the family of a possible suspect in the Sledge case when, in October 2013, she took a water bottle from the home of Marie Andrus and later had it tested for DNA without Andrus' permission. Andrus' brothers, who are now dead, were among those looked at for the crime.

Tests on the bottle later came back inconclusive, and Sledge was exonerated based on hairs from the crime scene and other evidence.

"I didn't think I had done anything wrong," Mumma told WRAL News in her first sit-down interview since her State Bar case was resolved. "When you know someone has been in there for 35 years, I mean, if that doesn't inspire you to do everything you can, then you're pretty heartless."

The disciplinary panel ruled that Mumma violated Andrus' privacy and issued a written admonition, the lowest level of punishment it could levy. The panel dismissed allegations that Mumma was dishonest or deceitful or acted in a way prejudicial to the administration of justice.

"The last two years have been grueling," Mumma said. "The negative feelings towards me from the State Bar prosecutor were just palatable."

Given the toll the allegations took, she said she might not take the same action she did in Sledge's case if faced with similar circumstances.

"Of course, I wouldn't do it," she said, adding later, "But had the bottle been consistent with the hairs and had resulted in Joseph coming home much more quickly, yeah, I would do it again."

Mumma's work has helped free several men who spent years in prison for crimes they didn't commit, and she said she felt like she was singled out because of that.

"I absolutely feel like I am a target. Who would go through what I went through the last few years and not feel like they're a target?" she said.

The process needs to be reformed, she said, so no one else has to defend himself or herself before the State Bar in the future, she said. North Carolina should pass a law making it mandatory for prosecutors to re-investigate cases when there is credible evidence of innocence, she said, noting 15 other states have such laws.

Mumma said she is working on more cases at the Center on Actual Innocence, including trying to free Johnny Small, who has been in prison for 28 years for a murder in New Hanover County she says he didn't commit.

"We've got some great cases right now, and I absolutely believe in their innocence, and I want to see them come home," she said. "Maybe once we can walk someone else out to freedom, all of this will be in the background a little bit."