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Easley: Innocence Commission Will Help Wrongly Convicted

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina has a new way to help keep innocent people out of prison. Gov. Mike Easley signed a bill Thursday that creates an Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first of its kind in the country.

Easley, a former prosecutor, said law enforcement's greatest nightmare is to have the wrong person in jail.

"When a judicial system, as it must, has a procedural bar and says, 'OK, you can't go any further; you've appealed everything and then some,' and then some evidence comes to light later that could affect the case, it's just another safety valve you can look at," said Easley.

That safety valve isn't expected to empty state prisons. The eight-member commission is a four-year pilot program made up of a judge, prosecutor, victims' advocate, defense lawyer and sheriff.

"It's a whole different kind of animal that we're not used to," said Easley.

The commission is the final result of a 2002 study led by then-state Supreme Court Chief Justice L. Beverly Lake.

The panel is different from a courtroom, because inmates who want to be heard may be required to waive attorney-client privilege and could be forced to testify. While this is unusual, it's designed to offer those wrongly convicted hope that wasn't there before.

Darryl Hunt's case made headlines when he won his freedom in 2004. That freedom came after 11 appeals and 18 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit. The hope is that the new commission could prevent this from happening again.

While rare, Easley said he realizes some investigations are second-rate, and it's those cases that trouble him most.

"(Some) 18- to 19-year-old kids didn't have any money, got appointed a lawyer, went to court; (because of) poor investigation, nobody really knew what occurred. The jury had to make a decision, and then some evidence came to light later," he said.