To the Editor:
It is painful and, frankly, disgusting to witness North Carolina’s prosecutors and their allies in the General Assembly trying to sabotage the Racial Justice Act and the Innocence Commission. These are two of the finest achievements ever enacted by any state.
Two of the most pernicious proposals would prohibit the Commission from reviewing any evidence previously heard by a judge or jury and forbid applications from prisoners who had pleaded guilty. In other words, the Commission would be half-blinded in all cases and deaf to many.
Innocent people can be induced to confess or even plead guilty to crimes. The Innocence Project cites false confessions or admissions as factors in a fourth of the 289 cases nationwide in which DNA has exonerated prisoners. Recently, our state’s Innocence Commission relied on DNA evidence to secure the release of two Buncombe County men who had pleaded guilty for fear of the death penalty.
As a lifelong journalist in another state, I saw false confessions firsthand. At Tallahassee, a disreputable polygraph operator coerced two men into confessing to a murder, but the “confessions” were so inconsistent with other evidence that the two were interrogated again to be fed more false “facts.” Among the questions: “Did you wear gloves?” Answer: “I guess we wore gloves.” (Emphasis supplied.) That was to explain why their fingerprints had not been found at the crime scene.
The magnitude of the discrepancy became obvious later when fingerprint evidence helped to convict the real perpetrators. The innocent men were exonerated, but not before one of them had been sent to death row and the other sentenced to life.
Such miscarriages of justice occur all the time, everywhere.
No case has yet been adjudicated under the Racial Justice Act, which is not about releasing anyone but only about fairly applying the death penalty. Of more than 1,100 innocence claims, the Commission has found probable cause in only three. The prosecutors would serve justice better by waiting for the messages rather than trying to kill the messengers.