Identify, Investigate, and Advance
The Center oversees Innocence Projects® at North Carolina law schools and provides legal services to indigent, unrepresented North Carolina and South Carolina inmates claiming factual innocence. Each year, the Center coordinates the review and investigation of cases by law student volunteers, allowing the students to:
- Work on real cases
- Learn from the past work of other attorneys
- Develop organizational, analytical, professional, and ethical skills
- Appreciate the value of providing pro bono services
Credible claims that are supported by new and reliable evidence of innocence are pursued through collaboration with prosecution or litigation.
The Center not only reviews all inmate claims sent to North Carolina law school Innocence Projects® but also receives claims forwarded from legislators, journalists, defense attorneys, and others involved in the criminal justice system. Each inmate receives a response. If an inmate’s claim warrants further review, but is not consistent with the Center’s mission, the Center refers him or her to the appropriate agency or resource.
Over 600 inmates submit innocence claims to the Center each year. Racial and ethnic minorities make up over two-thirds of applicants, and all applicants are indigent and unrepresented. Although wrongful conviction affects the impoverished and/or people of color more frequently than others, no one is exempt.*
Educate and Reform
Exonerating an innocent person does not negate the injustice of his or her incarceration. In addition to investigating innocence claims, the Center is actively engaged in criminal justice reform in North Carolina which can increase the reliability of convictions and avoid miscarriages of justice from the beginning stages of the criminal investigation.
Center staff also participates in speaking and training opportunities throughout the country. These activities educate criminal justice system stakeholders and the public about the Center’s work, as well as North Carolina’s leadership role in criminal justice reform. The following sections highlight some of those reforms.
Actual Innocence and Innocence Inquiry Commissions
In 2002, through the leadership of Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, Jr. and the work of the Center’s Executive Director, Christine Mumma, North Carolina became the first state in the country to form an Actual Innocence Commission. The Commission was established to study causation issues associated with wrongful convictions, to identify emerging solutions to those issues, and to make recommendations for systematic change to North Carolina’s criminal justice system in order to increase reliability of convictions and public confidence in outcomes.
Through the work of the Commission, North Carolina became the first state in the country to establish statutory laws addressing the standardization of witness lineup procedures and one of the first to require the recording of interrogations. It also led to the establishment of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, making North Carolina the first state in the country to have a state agency with statutory powers tasked with investigating innocence claims. The Innocence Inquiry Commission process ultimately exonerated Greg Taylor in 2010, Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson in 2011, and Willie Grimes in 2012.
Successful Legislative Reforms
The Actual Innocence Commission’s work encouraged legislative leaders to consider the importance of criminal justice reforms. It has also allowed the Center’s Executive Director to lead the way on additional reforms regarding:
- Proper preservation of biological evidence
- Increased compensation and support for exonerees
- Access to post-conviction DNA testing
- Expansion of the statutory requirements for recording of interrogation to all violent felonies and juvenile interrogations
- All of these reforms not only reduce the risk of wrongful conviction, but greatly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of criminal investigations.
In 2009, the Center’s Executive Director was appointed as a public member of the General Assembly’s Joint Select Study Committee on the Preservation of Biological Evidence. The Committee would later address the concerns identified in an external audit of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Lab (now known as the North Carolina State Crime Lab), an audit that was prompted by Greg Taylor’s exoneration. The Committee issued a report to the General Assembly in January 2011, which included six recommendations for reform and proposed legislation to create:
- A Forensic Science Advisory Board
- An Ombudsman post at the State’s Crime Lab
- Higher accreditation and certifications standards
- Changes to promote scientific independence and fairness in the pursuit of justice
Legislators incorporated these recommendations into the Forensics Sciences Act, which Governor Perdue signed into law in 2011.
Successful Non-Legislative Reforms
In the area of non-legislative successes, the Center’s Executive Director helped establish North Carolina’s Association for Property and Evidence and provided training for its members. In this association, peers collaborate to:
- Develop and implement standards
- Educate stakeholders about the importance of professional evidence technicians
- Facilitate training to improve the knowledge and skills of those handling evidence
*The Center staff screens inmate questionnaires without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status.