North Carolina Launches 'Innocence Board'
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
North Carolina prisoners who say they've been wrongly convicted will soon have an avenue outside of the court system to pursue their claim. The state this week created the nation's first Innocence Inquiry Commission. Former North Carolina Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, Jr. spearheaded the effort to create the innocence panel. He joins us on the line.
Hello, there. Thanks for speaking with us.
Mr. I. BEVERLY LAKE, JR. (Former Chief Justice, North Carolina): Hello. Thank you for having me.
ELLIOTT: Justice Lake, I imagine a judge's biggest fear is sending the wrong person to prison. Was there something you saw from the bench that led you to start working on this?
Mr. LAKE: Well, yes, there were, Debbie. Actually back in 2002, we had several high profile wrongful convictions come to light by means of the press. The press brought enough pressure so they had another hearing, and they were determined to be innocent. That's what prompted me to start the study commission.
ELLIOTT: Explain to us how this Innocence Inquiry Commission is going to work.
Mr. LAKE: Well, it will be an independent commission of eight members. We will have a trial judge presiding. We will have a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a sheriff, a victim advocate, and two at-large members appointed by the governor. So it's an eight-member commission. And the convicted person will have to prove his innocence by way of new information or new evidence that was not considered by the jury.
And if the case merits a further review, it's then referred to a three-judge panel. And then if they determine unanimously that the person was wrongly convicted, he will be exonerated.
ELLIOTT: Justice Lake, how common are wrongful convictions?
Mr. LAKE: They're very infrequent. We had, as I said, about four or five very high profile cases that came to light several years ago. We've had, I think, one since that time. The problem with the ones that came to light was that the people had been in prison for many, many years. So one almost 19 years before DNA proved that he was the wrong person. And DNA also found the actual perpetrator.
ELLIOTT: What is the most common reason innocent people are convicted?
Mr. LAKE: Surprisingly, the most common reason, almost 80 percent, of wrongful convictions result from faulty eyewitness identification. It frequently proves to be inaccurate.
ELLIOTT: Now, why is it that the courts don't catch these things? I mean, why do you need a separate panel?
Mr. LAKE: Well, the courts on appeal or post-conviction review are looking for technical, legal imperfections in the trial. They don't look behind the jury verdict. They don't look for issues of actual innocence and they don't have the benefit of new evidence.
ELLIOTT: So if I have new evidence that proves I'm innocent, I can't bring that before a North Carolina court?
Mr. LAKE: It's very difficult. There are procedural bars. If someone claims new evidence, it's frequently argued when that claim is made that this is evidence that was available, should have been presented years earlier, or earlier in the process, and so therefore the defendant is procedurally barred.
One of the cases that I referred to, the case of Darryl Hunt, where he spent almost 19 years in prison, filed 11 post-conviction motions. And they were reviewed by the courts and declined, turned down. So hopefully this will enable the legal process to work better and also give us another procedure to make a determination on the basis of new evidence primarily.
ELLIOTT: I. Beverly Lake, Jr. retired earlier this year as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. He led efforts to create the state's new innocence inquiry commission.
Thank you for your time, sir.
Mr. LAKE: Thank you very much.
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