WRAL Investigates

Innocence Commission's founder wants changes

Posted June 3, 2010 7:56 p.m. EDT
Updated June 8, 2010 4:20 p.m. EDT

— 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."

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.