Guilty, Then Proven Innocent

With eight successful exonerations so far, North Carolina's Innocence Inquiry Commission could be a national model for fighting wrongful convictions.

Joseph Sledge’s timing could not have been worse. While serving a four-year sentence for stealing t-shirts in 1976, the 36-year-old man from Georgia escaped from a prison work farm in eastern North Carolina. That same day, Josephine Davis and her daughter Ailene were brutally murdered in their farmhouse in nearby Bladen County. Sledge immediately became the prime suspect and was charged with their murders upon his re-capture.

The case against Sledge was weak. None of the fingerprints at the scene matched his own. The only physical evidence linking him to the crime was pubic hair “of Negroid origin” found on one victim’s body. An FBI microscopic analysis said they resembled Sledge’s hairs, but cautioned that this did not “constitute a basis for positive personal identification.” No eyewitnesses to the crime could be found, but two jailhouse informants testified that Sledge had confessed to killing two white “she-devils” to them. Sledge, who always maintained his innocence, received a life sentence in 1978.

His lawyers from the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence tried to fight the conviction, but struggled with delays in the appeals courts. In 2012, a county clerk discovered a envelope containing hairs from the crime scene that had been deemed missing. A private lab tested mitochondrial DNA samples from the hairs and ruled out any connection to Sledge. His lawyers then interviewed the only surviving jailhouse informant, who recanted his testimony.* The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency devoted to investigating wrongful convictions, voted unanimously last December to refer Sledge’s case to a special tribunal for exoneration. On January 23, the three judges unanimously ruled that Sledge had been wrongly convicted and ordered his release. He spent almost four decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

In 49 other states, Joseph Sledge would still be in prison.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is the first full-time state agency dedicated to investigating post-conviction claims of actual innocence. “The innocence commission is the only one of its kind in the nation,” the executive director, Kendra Montgomery, told me. Other states have nonprofit organizations like the Innocence Project or think tanks with similar names, “but we’re the only state that has a government agency that is neutral to investigate these cases,” she said. 1,642 claims have been submitted to the commission since its creation in 2006; Sledge’s case marked the eighth exoneration.

Because it is a state agency, the commission has powers that other institutions lack. Investigators can compel testimony with subpoenas, for example, and gather other kinds of evidence for their cases. “The commission has the unique power, because we are a neutral, fact-finding state agency by statute, to collect and test physical evidence in criminal cases,” said Sharon Stellato, who led the commission’s investigation of Sledge. This ability can be decisive: In at least 18 cases, commission investigators were able to locate evidence that had been officially declared lost or missing by other state agencies. Three of those cases resulted in exonerations, while some others confirmed the convictions.

In Sledge’s case, investigators spent about 18 months examining the case before bringing it to a hearing. Other investigations lasted even longer. “Some take years, some take months,” Montgomery said. A convicted person must meet certain criteria to qualify for a commission investigation. First, the applicant must claim actual innocence of any criminal responsibility for the crime in question. Second, there must be credible, verifiable evidence of that innocence. This can include DNA evidence, like that which helped exonerate Sledge, or new witness testimony. Finally, this claim must not have been previously heard at trial or in a post-conviction hearing.

These conditions disqualify many applicants early in the process. 28 percent of rejected cases lacked new evidence, while another 20 percent had no way to prove their claims. 21 percent of rejected cases did not claim complete factual innocence of the crimes. In 9 percent of rejections, the evidence itself was deemed unreliable. North Carolina law requires the commission to prioritize investigations of trial cases over plea cases. Beyond that, investigators have broad discretion to choose which cases to focus on. Everyone on the nine-person staff that supports the commission’s work has multiple cases assigned to them.

After the case has been thoroughly investigated, the agency may choose to hold a formal inquiry at which the claimant can testify and present evidence. Investigators then present their case to the commission itself at a hearing. The full commission consists of eight members, including a prosecutor, a criminal-defense attorney, a sheriff, a superior court judge, a victims’ rights advocate, a member of the public, and two discretionary appointments. The commission evaluates the case and votes to submit it to a special tribunal for review. If the three-judge panel unanimously finds that the evidence for actual innocence is clear and convincing, the claimant is exonerated and immediately released.

“The Innocence Inquiry Commission is a fantastic innovation,” said Mary Kelly Tate, a professor at the University of Richmond and the director of the law school’s Institute for Actual Innocence. “They do important work, they do thorough work, and they have had a meaningful impact.”

Exonerations, which were once exceedingly rare, have become regular features of the American justice system. The National Registry of Exonerations tallied 125 cases in 2014, the highest annual total so far. The group records 1,535 exonerations nationwide since records began in 1989. Of the 125 wrongful convictions thrown out in 2014, 33 came from Harris County, Texas after faulty testing procedures were uncovered there. Even without Harris County, however, the number of exonerations last year still outnumbered those in preceding years.

125 exonerations might seem paltry compared to the estimated 1 million felony convictions per year, but the number of wrongful convictions is likely far higher. Many jurisdictions don’t devote the same level of resources towards exonerations that North Carolina does, and even then, the process can be achingly slow. For a justice system that exalts due process and the presumption of innocence, any wrongful conviction represents a serious breakdown of justice. Even a handful of high-profile wrongful convictions can ripple throughout the public consciousness, undermining confidence in the system. “The country is having to psychically cope with conclusive evidence that we make, with some regularity, errors in criminal trial outcomes,” Tate said.

But the national trends have not yet provoked local action. Often, it takes a particularly outrageous case to galvanize change. In North Carolina, it was the deep injustice of Darryl Hunt’s conviction that finally spurred state leaders into action.

Hunt had spent almost two decades in prison for the brutal rape and murder of 25-year-old journalist Deborah Sykes in Winston-Salem. The initial case against Hunt relied on eyewitness testimony—a man claimed he saw Sykes with a man resembling Hunt the morning before her murder—with no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Prosecutors told the jury that Hunt’s girlfriend had given a statement claiming Hunt had confessed to the murders to her. Hunt was found guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. The North Carolina Supreme Court overturned that conviction in 1989 because Hunt’s girlfriend had recanted her statement to prosecutors before trial.

At retrial, prosecutors offered Hunt a deal: Plead guilty and be sentenced to time served. Hunt refused, maintaining his innocence. The next jury heard from the same eyewitnesses and from two new jailhouse informants who claimed Hunt had confessed to killing Sykes behind bars. The all-white jury found Hunt, who is black, guilty of the murder and handed him a new life sentence.

By this time, however, DNA testing had become a viable option in criminal cases. In 1994, Hunt’s attorneys tested semen found on Sykes’ body during his appeals and discovered it didn’t match their client. But a North Carolina judge ruled this was insufficient evidence to order a third trial, and no appeals court would overturn the ruling. Finally, in 2003, Hunt’s attorneys managed to get the sample tested against the state DNA database. It found a match: Willard E. Brown, a repeat offender who confessed to Sykes’ murder and said he acted alone when confronted by police. On February 6, 2003, a North Carolina Superior Court judge ordered Hunt’s release and dismissed the case against him “with prejudice,” meaning he can never be tried for the murder again.

Hunt’s exoneration came in the wake of several other high-profile wrongful convictions. Their ordeal demonstrated serious flaws in both the pre-trial and trial phases of the justice system, as well as a gap in the justice system’s ability to remedy wrongful convictions. One year before Hunt's exoneration, I. Beverly Lake, the then-chief justice of North Carolina, convened a group of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and legal experts to assess how the state approached possible cases of actual innocence. “[Lake] put his personal and professional capital behind this undertaking,” Tate said. “It wouldn’t have happened without his leadership.”

The working group had two goals. First, members mapped out reforms to prevent future wrongful convictions. The North Carolina legislature enacted many of their proposals, including stricter requirements for eyewitness testimony, better evidence preservation methods, and changes to how interrogations are recorded. Second, the group developed a method to rectify past wrongful convictions. Appellate courts, which are designed to remedy procedural errors and “privilege finality,” are loath to challenge errors of fact like those that plagued Sledge and Hunt. “That’s what makes post-conviction and appellate work so difficult—you have to go against the natural grain of the system,” Tate added.

To close these gaps, Judge Lake’s working group proposed the creation of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. A core tenet of the agency would be its impartiality. “We do not and never do represent the defendant,” Montgomery emphasized. “We are neutral.” This is a revolutionary idea within the American justice system, which typically relies on adversarial proceedings between the defense and the prosecution to reach the truth.

Multiple factors in those adversarial proceedings can lead to a wrongful conviction. In the cases of Sledge and Hunt, eyewitnesses and jailhouse informants later recanted testimony that had led to convictions. “Eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions,” Tate explained. Testimony from informants, which is “structurally unreliable” because it is incentivized, “plays a role in about 18 to 20 percent of DNA exonerations.” Poor forensics, false confessions, and bad lawyering, whether from overburdened public defenders or inexperienced trial counsel, can also negatively affect a defendant’s chances at a fair trial.

Confirmation bias can also play a role. In Sledge’s case, law enforcement quickly (and incorrectly) connected the dots between two violent murders and Sledge’s escape from prison. It didn’t help in 1976 that Sledge, a black man, had been accused of killing two white women. Even after the DNA tests ruled him out, the Davis family still believed the right man was arrested 38 years ago. “Joseph Sledge deserves the criminal environment and should never be among decent white people—excuse me, should never be among decent people again,” one family member told commissioners at a hearing in December.

These factors are compounded by external ones. “Wrongful convictions tend to fall among the least powerful in society, or groups that have less social capital,” Tate explained. Juveniles, the mentally ill, and the intellectually disabled are especially at risk. Poorer defendants also typically have fewer resources to mount an effective legal defense. Strengthening public defender programs, which are perpetually underfunded, would help prevent future wrongful convictions. But it would do little to help those already in prison.

Building a consistent, reliable process for exonerations can also provide a valuable civic good. Wrongful convictions contribute to “the tapestry of reduced public confidence in the criminal-justice system,” according to Tate, alongside mass incarceration and the high-profile deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year. “As we become a more multicultural, multiethnic society, a criminal-justice system that is not shored up with strong public confidence is going to be a very significant difficulty in a pluralistic, democratic society.” By providing a mechanism to address claims of actual innocence, innocence commissions like North Carolina’s help restore trust in the overall system.

A major challenge for the commission, and a perennial qualm for any state agency, is funding. Reviewing each claim of actual innocence can be a resource-intensive process: Testing DNA evidence in Joseph Sledge’s case alone cost $60,130. Other commission cases run even higher: The tests that exonerated Leon Brown and Henry McCollum cost about $87,000, for example. These price tags are determined by the nature of the evidence itself, which can often be decades old, requiring more sophisticated procedures at specialized labs. “When you have to have thirty-year-old evidence tested using the most efficient techniques, we can’t do it at the [state] crime lab and we need the funding to have it tested at private labs,” Stellato explained.

To further conserve time and funds, investigators go through evidence in sequence. “We don’t come in with 20 pieces of evidence and test them all at once,” Montgomery said. “We have to do it piece by piece.” If one of those pieces matches the convicted person and refutes their claim, investigators can avoid spending thousands of dollars on unnecessary tests on the rest of the evidence. This tactic can also help save taxpayer money in the long run. “Many times the commission does confirm convictions, and that’s important for the judicial system as well,” Montgomery said. “It saves a lot of state resources for cases that keep coming back on appeal or through other processes.”

In Sledge’s case, the costs were covered by a federal grant from the Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program at the National Institutes of Justice. “It’s funded a lot of agencies in a lot of other states that have done some really important, significant work as well,” Montgomery said. The grant, which expires at the end of the year, also currently funds two additional full-time positions. The commission chose to forego a third position in favor of more money for DNA testing. But federal cuts could threaten the NIJ program’s future, including in North Carolina. The Justice for All Reauthorization Act, which funded the program and others like it, died without a vote in the last Congress and has yet to be reintroduced in the current one.

More states are mulling innocence commissions of their own, but the lack of funding stands as a key obstacle. Out-of-state officials regularly contact Montgomery about North Carolina’s model and ask whether her office can help other states set up their own versions. She and her coworkers always respond enthusiastically. “We’ve always hoped that we wouldn’t be the only one forever,” she said.

* This post originally stated that a jailhouse informant recanted testimony in an interview with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, not the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. We regret the error. It has also been updated to clarify that Darryl Hill's exoneration came after the formation of Judge Lake's working group, but prior to the creation of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.