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Prompted by a disturbing string of exonerations of wrongfully convicted defendants, North Carolina is moving toward a novel process for reviewing inmates’ claims of innocence. The North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission�a diverse group of criminal justice experts led by the state Supreme Court’s chief justice�is outlining a proposal for what would be the first such innocence-review procedure in the nation. It would be confined to innocence claims after conviction and would operate outside of the normal appeal process. Under the concept, an independent review board with an investigative staff and the power to subpoena records and witnesses would examine inmates’ claims of innocence. In cases where it found a substantial likelihood of innocence, the board would move for a new trial for the inmate. A trial judge or panel of judges would then decide whether to order a new trial based on clear and convincing evidence of innocence. If the judge orders a new trial, prosecutors would choose whether to retry or drop the case. Prisoners who pursue the optional review would have to share information freely with prosecutors. It’s envisioned as a more cooperative process than traditional courtroom combat between prosecutors and defense lawyers. “You put the adversarial system aside, and open it up,” said commission member Rich Rosen, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We’re finding out how foreign this is to our normal system. It is not a search for the truth at this point.” The concept, which the commission has not yet formally proposed, would require legislation by the state General Assembly. The commission began outlining its proposal last month, but isn’t expected to finish it before the fall. The proposal could go to the Legislature early next year. Fresh on the minds of North Carolina lawmakers is the case of Darryl Hunt, a Winston-Salem, N.C., man who spent 18 years in prison for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. Hunt was officially exonerated in February after DNA evidence linked the crime to another man, who confessed. Governor Mike Easley granted Hunt a pardon of innocence in April. The state recently agreed to pay Hunt $360,000 for his wrongful imprisonment. Many states allow inmates to file court motions seeking DNA testing, which they can use in traditional court appeals. But DNA isn’t helpful in most criminal cases. North Carolina’s commission, formed two years ago, says that the only model for its proposal is in England. Other states and leaders of the national movement to prevent and correct wrongful convictions are watching North Carolina’s effort. “Different states are doing different things, but I don’t think any of them are as thoughtful and balanced as what North Carolina is doing,” said former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Normal appeals inadequate The problem with ordinary appeals is that they typically focus on small questions of law and process: Were the jury instructions appropriate? Was the defense attorney ineffective? Was the indictment valid? Appeals rarely ask the most basic question: Did we get the right guy? Once a jury has said so, the courts are reluctant to second-guess it. But as the national surge in recent exonerations has shown, police, juries and trial courts sometimes get it wrong, putting an innocent person behind bars and letting the real criminal roam free. So North Carolina’s commission is working to devise a new way to examine the narrow�but overriding�issue of inmates’ guilt or innocence. The commission’s founder, Republican Chief Justice Beverly Lake Jr., and Democrat Attorney General Roy Cooper, a commission member, support the idea in principle as the group hashes out the details. The commission is composed of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, administrators, law officers, law professors and advocates of crime victims. “I don’t think any other states have a proposal like this,” said lawyer Christine Mumma of Durham, the group’s executive director. Commission member Rob Johnson, the district attorney in Alamance County, said, “They’re looking at us now to lead the way.” Figuring out how to do that requires resolving conflicts between the proposed review board and the normal court system, fostering unusual cooperation between prosecutors and defense lawyers, and encouraging candor about the justice system’s failures without laying personal blame. “Philosophical issues aside, there aren’t easy answers about how to make this work,” said Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, a member of the commission. “We’re building a new house out of old lumber, and it’s not always so smooth.” But commission members say they’re hopeful. “The Legislature is going to be hard-pressed not to do something to help us with actual innocence,” said commission member Donald Stephens, the top-ranking trial judge in Wake County, which includes Raleigh. “And what we do had better work�this may actually happen.”

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