North Carolina Law Review

University of North Carolina School of Law

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Chapel Hill, NC 27514

N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission’s First Decade: Impressive Successes and Lessons Learned

September 30, 2016

94 N.C. L. Rev. 1725 (2016) 

 

This Article examines the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission in its first decade of operation. The Commission, which was created in 2006 by the North Carolina General Assembly, is unique in the nation for its structure and charge to investigate and find cases of factual innocence among convicted felons. This Article examines the seven cases handled by the Commission where innocence has been found. In them, nine men have been freed, each after serving decades in prison, in murder and rape cases that the evidence developed by the Commission showed they did not commit. The Commission has demonstrated that its general inquisitorial model with broad access to evidence, investigative tenacity and accumulated expertise, and neutrality provide important benefits in finding and documenting evidence of innocence.

 

These seven cases provide fascinating examples of mistakes in the initial investigation and dogged tunnel vision that focused on finding incriminating evidence to convict the incorrectly selected prime suspect(s). The cases exhibit an abundance of false statements by informers and erroneous tips by reward seekers, erroneous forensic evidence, false confessions, and mistaken eyewitness identifications. The Commission has enjoyed cooperation from law enforcement and prosecutors, but it has also had to overcome resistance from officials defending earlier flawed investigations and prosecutions. In these seven cases, the process succeeded.

 

The examination of these cases and the Commission’s processes show an important and successful new model for rectifying the systemic errors that evade correction through ordinary adversarial procedures and ultimately produce wrongful convictions. The Commission’s successes and the lessons learned from its operation deserve examination by other jurisdictions dealing with the persistent failures of our criminal justice system to avoid convicting and incarcerating defendants who are factually innocent.

 

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