N.C. House approves commission to review innocence claims

By: - August 12, 2005 5:17 am

The Daily Advance 

Associated Press Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. — Responding to a series of publicized wrongful convictions, the state House voted 80-23 Thursday in favor of forming an independent panel to review the innocence claims of convicted felons.

"This is an attempt to deal with a few cases in this state where we know human error has been made," said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, a co-sponsor of the bill, which now goes to the Senate.

The state Supreme Court chief justice and the chief judge of the state Appeals Court would choose the eight-member panel of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. The members would review claims and send the case on to a three-judge Superior Court panel if five of the eight members agreed.

Charges would be dismissed if all three judges determine there "is clear and convincing evidence" that the defendant is innocent. A split decision could be appealed to the Supreme Court.

A task force examining the state’s criminal justice system recommended the formation of the panel earlier this year. The task force was formed in part because of the murder case of Darryl Hunt, who spent 18 years in prison for the slaying of a Winston-Salem woman before DNA evidence exonerated him.

The commission would rapidly examine credible claims of innocence that weren’t considered during court appeals that examine legal procedure or claims stemming from new evidence.

Before the innocence commission took up a case, the defendant would have to give up the right to the attorney-client or spousal privileges that might have been used in previous trials to withhold certain information.

House members rejected several amendments, including one that would have barred defendants who pleaded guilty from going before the commission.

"I don’t think we need to waste our time with people who have admitted their guilt before the courts," said Rep. Joe Kiser, R-Lincoln, a former sheriff who sponsored that amendment.

Rep. Rick Eddins, R-Wake, said Kiser’s amendment would save money and prevent more crime victims from reliving cases.

Amendment opponents argued that some defendants plead guilty because they received poor information from their attorney or didn’t fully understand what they were agreeing to because of mental limitations.

"This amendment just basically guts the bill," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066