North Carolina Judge Urges Florida to Establish Innocence Commission

04/20/10 Lisa Marzilli
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Little has been done by state leaders to deal with the disturbing fact that at least a dozen people since the 1980’s have spent hundreds of years between them falsely imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. But that could soon change, thanks in part to former American Bar Association President Sandy D’Alemberte and Republican Senator Mike Haridopolos.

In December, D’Alemberte petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to establish an innocence commission which would investigate the causes of wrongful conviction and recommend ways to prevent it from happening in the future. Haridopolos is trying to secure the funding to make that happen.

Florida’s commission would be modeled after one established in North Carolina by retired state Supreme Court Justice I. Beverly Lake. He said there were several disturbing cases in his state that gave him the impetus to finally say “enough is enough”.

I’ve always been a strong supporter of law enforcement and a hard-nosed judge that doesn’t put up with criminal behavior and I don’t mind giving out a lot of time for serious crimes; but I became very much concerned with what I learned about these particular cases and how they came to the attention of the public. One in particular thanks to the persistence of the press. The judicial system didn’t have anything to do with it and I thought that was wrong and should be corrected.

That case involved Greg Taylor who was exonerated in February after languishing in prison for 17 years for a murder he did not commit. And the case motivated Justice Lake to form a study panel in 2002 called the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission. It was comprised of about thirty key representatives of the criminal justice system and legal community volunteering their time and expertise. It met every couple of months to try to pinpoint specific errors made during the investigations and trials that led to innocent people being convicted and ultimately imprisoned. Lake said the panel honed in on several key factors including faulty eyewitness identification.

So we addressed that problem first and made some changes in line up procedures that were finally adopted by law enforcement throughout the state and we also considered the videotaping of interrogations by the police, for their protection as much as anything else.

  1. Beverly Lake served as North Carolina’s Chief Justice for ten years. He was forced to step down after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 72. He laments the fact that the study commission’s work has been largely ignored under current Chief Justice Sarah Parker.

I had to retire in 2006 and my successor has not seen fit unfortunately, to continue the study commission. There were a number of other things we were planning to look at, for example, the proper collection and preservation of evidence. A lot needs to be done in that field.

The 2002 study panel, Lake said, ultimately led to the legislative formation four years later of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission which considers actual claims of innocence, the first of it’s kind in the country.

We devised this entirely new procedure which would not be adversarial, that is the prosecution and the defense would come together and work to determine the truth of that particular case. When asked if the prosecution, who had a hand in imprisoning the victim, were willing participants Lake said, they were in a few cases, they were not in the most recent case, the prosecution fought it all the way and was very embarrassed by the outcome.

Even though wrongful convictions account for only a small fraction of all cases, Lake highly recommends that Florida proceed full force into setting up an innocence study commission because as he sees it, one case is one too many.

Anything that can be done to improve that situation would certainly bring about justice and it would also present another safeguard that I think would enhance the public’s opinion of the courts and the legal system, as you may know it’s somewhat low at the present time.

Two weeks ago Mike Haridopolos sponsored an amendment to the Senate budget, which added $200,000 to fund an innocence commission. The House has yet to approve a similar budget amendment, so whether or not the funds will make the final version of the budget remains in question.

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