The Path To Setting A Wrongly Convicted Prisoner Free
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Henry McCollum and Leon Brown are free to do what they want this weekend, something that hasn't been possible for 30 years. The half-brothers spent that time in jail for a crime they didn't commit - the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in 1983. At the time, McCollum was 19, Brown, 15. Both are considered mentally disabled. And both confessed to the crime but later recanted. This week, a North Carolina judge exonerated them after DNA analysis implicated someone else - a known sex offender never questioned even though he lived a block from the crime scene. Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were released because of the work of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. Kendra Montgomery-Blinn is executive director of the commission. She joins us to talk about this case and the challenge facing states in handling claims of wrongful convictions. Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, welcome to the program.
KENDRA MONTGOMERY-BLINN: Thank you so very much.
CORNISH: Now, first explain a little bit about what this group does because we know no other state has a commission quite like this.
MONTGOMERY-BLINN: That's right. We are an investigative agency. Our job is to investigate and evaluate post-conviction claims of factual innocence. That means if somebody's been convicted of a felony and there's new evidence, then it's our job to look at it.
CORNISH: And so lawyers in this case had been working for decades. These men repeatedly recanted their confessions. Tell us what is the evidence that the Inquiry Commission was able to turn up that turned the tide?
MONTGOMERY-BLINN: So the commission did a lot of different things in this case, one of those things was uncover some missing files and physical evidence that had been missing for a very long time. We also conducted extensive DNA testing. Some of that DNA testing did result in a DNA databank hit to a person who had been convicted of a similar rape and murder. We also conducted traditional witness interviews and other types of investigation.
CORNISH: Now the appellate process was established well before DNA technology emerged, right? I mean, how are these claims handled in states where a commission like yours doesn't exist?
MONTGOMERY-BLINN: Well, that's right. That's what's so unique about the commission because the appellate process is really not designed to deal with new evidence. The appellate process is designed to deal with procedural errors - problems in the trial, problems with the way somebody's rights were handled during investigation, that type of thing. But with the, you know, invention of DNA technology and our developed understanding of investigations of cases, confessions, eyewitness identification, all of those things that come into play, it's not really equipped to go through the regular appellate process.
CORNISH: Give us a sense of how it works. I mean, just how many claims are you getting and what percentage of those do you actually look at?
MONTGOMERY-BLINN: Six people have been exonerated through commission process, but we have reviewed or have received over 1,600 claims. So it is a really tough process. There needs to be something new, something that was not presented to the jury at trial. So that's our real focus is what can we uncover now?
CORNISH: Can you help us understand how it is state-funded? Just how much of the funding does come from taxpayer dollars?
MONTGOMERY-BLINN: We have a fairly small budget - about $350,000 a year. We also have a federal grant from the National Institute of Justice.
CORNISH: So that's the cost of, like, one lawyer, right? I mean, one really good lawyer if you think about it.
MONTGOMERY-BLINN: You know, it's a lot less expensive than hiring a private investigator and sending these cases through the court system where someone is being billed hourly.
CORNISH: Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, this office has been operating for several years now but it hasn't exactly spread as a concept to other states. What do you think is the reluctance?
MONTGOMERY-BLINN: Well, you know, I think sometimes it came at a bad time for funding. We were created and began operation in 2007, and I think it was hard for other states to create new agencies. I hope that that's going to change. And a lot of states have study commissions and are thinking about it. So we stand ready. We hope we'll have sister agency soon in another state.
CORNISH: That's Kendra Montgomery-Blinn. She's executive director of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. The commission brought forward evidence that overturned the convictions of two men wrongly imprisoned for 30 years. Kendra, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MONTGOMERY-BLINN: My pleasure.
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