We Can Be Proud of the NC Innocence Commission

People get wrongly convicted. Putting the wrong person in jail is one of those things, like an air crash, that is bound to happen once in a while. And horrific as it is, it can't justify shutting down the whole system. So unless an innocent prisoner can marshal the financial and political resources (not that these are necessarily enough) to fight the injustice that keeps them behind bars, behind bars they stay.

Except in North Carolina, at least if Governor Easley signs the North Carolina Innocence Commission into law.

If he does, we'll be the first state to establish a new line of defense outside the criminal appeals process against wrongful convictions. The N&O has it right when it says that "the current criminal appeals process is geared toward ensuring fair trials," not evaluating claims of innocence. The Commission would look at these claims, examine those that seem to have the most merit, and give prisoners in these cases a fresh hope. This is a good thing, and being first in the nation to put it into practice is great.

There are only a couple of dissenting voices in the piece linked above. One is a distinguished NC jurist, Judge James Wynn: "It has to lessen public confidence if the judiciary has to concede that they cannot fix the problem." A couple of thoughts on that: first, I have a great deal of confidence in things that I know to not be infallible (like airbags, airplanes, and modern medicine); second, I don't think I'll be alone in having increased confidence in an enhanced system that expends a little extra effort making sure that the people who are in jail ought to be there. I think I understand where Judge Wynn is coming from (he only gets a line or two in the article), but I think that people will judge the system by its results, and not by how secure the judiciary's shroud of infallibility is.

The other complaint comes from the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network, and doesn't deserve as much credence:

Prosecutors were not the only ones dissatisfied; the bill says victims can be excluded from commission proceedings if their presence would interfere with the investigation.

"We feel they have a right to be at every stage of the process," said Mel Chilton, executive director of the N.C. Victim Assistance Network, a nonprofit group.

The Innocence Commission's job is to determine whether the prisoner at issue has been fairly matched with the victims. That's a question of fact, and if victims' emotions (justified though they undoubtedly will be) threaten to railroad that determination, then of course they should be restricted from participation in the process. If the facts don't point toward innocence, then the prisoner goes back to her sentence; if they do, then the victims are mad at the wrong person. The provision limiting victim involvement sounds like a good one to me.

Comments

I'm not even going to tell you what I thought this

was when I first saw it listed in the Observer. You can probably guess.



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