Innocence delayed: Advancing bill potentially sets new hurdles for wrongly convicted

Less than 1% of people who’ve sought relief under current rules have succeeded, but House bill would make it even harder

By: - June 21, 2023 6:00 am
Corinne Fowler testifying in the Senate committee

Corinne Fowler, a staff attorney with the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission, said the commission opposed an earlier version of House Bill 790, but reached a compromise with lawmakers and the Conference of District Attorneys. Image: stream

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would change laws governing the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission — after debating whether it would make it harder for innocent people convicted of crimes to get out of prison and clear their name.

A previous version of the bill would have barred the commission’s director from accepting funding from private donors and would have only allowed people currently imprisoned to pursue claims of innocence through its process. Corinne Fowler, a staff attorney with the commission, said the independent agency did not support the original version, but after working with the Conference of District Attorneys, the bill’s sponsor Rep. A. Reece Pyrtle, Jr. (R-Rockingham) and other legislators, they struck a compromise on the parts “that directly affect the day-to-day operations of the commission.”

But there’s a key part of the bill that does not affect the commission’s day-to-day operations, which Fowler said they did not take a position on: the three-judge panel that assesses claims involving prosecutorial misconduct.

Fowler described the current process as follows: a convicted person applies to the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission. A staff attorney investigates. If they find “grounds for verifiable credible evidence,” they present it to the members of the commission, who then vote on innocence. After that point, it gets transferred to a three-judge panel.

“The commission has no say in what happens at the three-judge panel. We’re not involved in it in any way,” Fowler said. “We transfer all of our information over to the claimants counsel and the D.A. that’s involved.”

House Bill 790 would require that the North Carolina Rules of Evidence apply at the evidentiary hearing. Brad Bannon, former president of North Carolina Advocates for Justice, said that would “extraordinarily lengthen” the pre-hearing process, as well as the length of the hearing itself.

“I tried one of these last year that would have lasted four to eight weeks instead of the one-and-a-half weeks that it took,” Bannon said. “It’d be my request on behalf of claimants to remove that language, let this process continue the way it has, and in a manner in which no issues have been identified up to this point.”

Bannon said that the Rules of Evidence exist at the trial court level because at that stage, juries — meaning laypeople not well-versed in the law — are the assessors. But the three-judge panel is appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Those judges, Bannon said, “have spent their professional life lifetimes assessing credibility and determining whether evidence should come in and be considered.”

That experience and expertise, Bannon said, is the whole reason they don’t apply the Rules of Evidence, so they can move past attorneys’ “gamesmanship” and “get to the heart of the issue, which is, ‘Is this person innocent, and do they deserve relief?'”

The Innocence Inquiry Commission’s webpage states that 15 people — out of 3,373 claims — have been exonerated through the commission’s work.

There were more than 30,800 people in state prisons as of June 20.

Democrats on the committee wondered whether the bill was even necessary.

“What is the need for the changes?” asked Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg). “Is there some sense that the commission has been finding people to be innocent, wrongly?”

Prytle said district attorneys across North Carolina told him the bill was necessary. He said it allows prosecutors to act appropriately when presented with new evidence that undermines a previous conviction. A bill analysis says the proposal would allow prosecutors to give the commission a written statement at least 10 days before a hearing.

“It’s just leveling the playing field for the district attorneys,” he said.

Pyrtle also said the three-judge panel has the immense power to set aside a jury’s conviction or a judge’s sentence. To allow them to exercise that power using evidence that wouldn’t be admissible in the trial court would be a “miscarriage of justice.”

Sen. Mujtaba A. Mohammed (D-Mecklenburg) pointed out that the three-judge panel’s decision must be unanimous — the standard is “clear and convincing evidence,” which Bannon had called a “very high burden” — and that lengthening the process could keep people imprisoned who did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted.

“Would that not be a miscarriage of justice?” Mohammed asked.

Chuck Spahos, a lobbyist for the NC Conference of District Attorneys, said the provision in the bill was intended to ensure the three-judge panels apply the same rules to evidence, but he was unaware of any panels that inappropriately assessed evidence that led to an exoneration.

“The state believes that if you’re going to undermine the jury’s verdict and the judge’s sentence, then you should do it with admissible evidence,” he said. “Rules of Evidence are about authenticating the evidence, about establishing its reliability and about having confidence in the evidence.”

Spahos said district attorneys were not trying to undermine or do away with the Innocence Inquiry Commission.

“We’re standing here today supporting this process,” Spahos said. “We do believe it’s a valid system. We believe these changes, make it an even better system.”

The bill passed out of Senate Judiciary and was referred to the Rules Committee.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.