The state Supreme Court's Chief Justice should abolish the North Carolina Actual Innocence commission because it is obsolete. That's among several proposals couched within Senate Bill 734, the Regulatory Reform Act. A large bill, it includes provisions to decriminalize cursing on public sidewalks and to streamline environmental reforms.
The Actual Innocence Commission was established through court order in 2002 after the-Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake invited representatives from the criminal justice system and academic community to a roundtable discussion. Since then, the commission has served as a way for people involved in the criminal justice system to debate policy and the common causes of wrongful conviction.
It is different from the state-funded Innocence Inquiry Commission. Its charge is to examine cases in which there might be new evidence that didn't come up during a trial. A recommendation in the Governor's budget proposal increases state funding to the Innocence Inquiry Commission. It has overturned the wrongful convictions of four people in the state and deals strictly with individual cases, while the Actual Innocence Commission addresses only policy.
Chris Mumma, executive director of the Actual Innocence Commission, says the group has been "hugely beneficial" to law enforcement in its work on accusation issues in wrongful convictions, witness identification issues, false confessions and the post-conviction process.
She says the Innocence Inquiry Commission, which will hear a fifth case next week, is a "ripple effect" of the Actual Innocence Commission's work. Established in 2006, the Innocence Inquiry Commission grew out of the Actual Innocence Commission.
"It has absolutely been effectual in exonerating innocent people in North Carolina," Mumma said.
During the Senate debate, Jerry Tillman, R-Moore, called the Actual Innocence Commission ineffective.
"Tell me how many cases they've reviewed," he said Thursday. "They've done little or nothing."
Mumma said Tillman is misinformed about the role of the Actual Innocence Commission. "It's not relevant to him. There is no state funding for it. It was not established through legislation," she said. "It's just an old-school approach."
Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, who spoke in favor of the Commission, said he feels Tillman's opposition to the Commission reflects Tillman's general views on wrongful convictions.
"He's saying we don't need to do any of this, period," McKissick, an attorney, said in a phone interview Friday. "He's saying let these people serve in jail whether they were wrongfully convicted or not. He took the blanket position that it's a waste of money to try to let these people go and we don't need to be involved in this type of thing. That offends every basic principle of justice and fair play."
Tillman has not responded to INDY Week's request for comment.
The bill passed the Senate on its second reading.
Current North Carolina Chief Justice Sarah Parker has said she supports the Actual Innocence Commission. Eleven other states have observed the work North Carolina has done in overturning wrongful convictions, and have come up with similar models.
"I see no reason to encourage the Chief Justice to look into abolishing it," McKissick said. "Why would we encourage somebody to abolish an established commission that has made some good recommendations when they can continue to do additional work that can help cure inequities in our criminal justice system?"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Guilty of obsolescence?."