RALEIGH, N.C. – Inmates in North Carolina who claim they were wrongly convicted got a new avenue of appeal Thursday as Gov. Mike Easley signed a law creating a state innocence commission described as the first of its kind in the nation.
The commission, modeled after one in the United Kingdom, was created after several high-profile convictions were overturned in North Carolina.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission will review innocence claims from people who can present new evidence that hasn't been considered in court.
The eight-member commission will begin accepting claims in November. If five or more commission members agree there is enough evidence of potential innocence, the case would be sent to a panel of three Superior Court judges. Overturning a conviction would require a unanimous decision by the three judges.
Easley, a former prosecutor and attorney general, said North Carolina residents should be proud of the innocence commission.
"Its creation gives our criminal justice system yet another safeguard by helping ensure that the people in our prisons in fact, belong there," Easley said in a statement after signing the bill without a public ceremony.
Among the high-profile cases of wrongful conviction was that of Darryl Hunt, who served 18 years in prison for the 1984 murder of a Winston-Salem newspaper employee before he was exonerated in 2003 by DNA evidence. Easley later pardoned him. In 2004, Alan Gell, a onetime death row inmate, was retried and acquitted in a 1995 killing after it was revealed prosecutors withheld key evidence.
While other states have created panels to improve legal procedures to reduce the likelihood of wrongful conviction, North Carolina's commission will consider individual cases.
"It is the first of its kind in the nation," said Eric Ferrero with the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal clinic that handles cases where DNA testing can lead to overturning a conviction.
Convicts who pleaded guilty in their original cases will not be eligible to submit their claims for two years. After that time, the eight-member commission would have to agree unanimously to send the case to the judges' panel.
The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys had objected to that provision because people who pleaded guilty in court can now proclaim their innocence. Garry Frank, the group's president, said it was "kind of making a mockery of the system."