November 27, 2002

N.C. Sets Up `Actual Innocence' Panel

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A group of legal authorities has created an unprecedented commission that will review how innocent people are convicted and how to free them when it happens.

The N.C. Actual Innocence Commission was convened for the first time last week by I. Beverly Lake Jr., chief justice of the state Supreme Court. State Attorney General Roy Cooper, a prosecutor, a public defender, several law professors, judges and law enforcement officials are on the panel.

``We need to make sure that we don't convict an innocent person -- and if we do, to catch it fairly quickly,'' Lake said. ``The ultimate object of any court process is to find the truth. I think we can do some good. And I think North Carolina can take the lead on this.''

Concentrating on procedures, not individual cases, the group will consider ways to improve crime investigations and trials. It also will consider proposing a review for claims of innocence beyond the normal appeal process.

Ten states, including North Carolina, have examined their death penalty systems in recent years. North Carolina's review two years ago led to exempting the mentally retarded from executions.

Lake said he was motivated to establish the commission because of a high-profile string of wrong convictions in the state.

They include the convictions of Ronald Cotton and Lesly Jean, who each spent about a decade in prison for rapes that DNA tests later showed they had not committed.

Other innocent inmates included Charles Munsey, a death row inmate who died in prison in 1999 while awaiting retrial, and Terence Garner, who spent more than four years in prison for a robbery and shooting before evidence of his innocence led a judge to free him in February.

Possible reforms, Lake said, include making suspect lineups and photo identifications more accurate and giving juries more information about prosecutors' deals with defendants who testify against one another.

Another possibility is establishing an executive-branch panel to review evidence of innocence with the cooperation of prosecutors and defense
lawyers after ordinary appeals have run their course.

Source: N.Y. Times