North Carolina may create Court of Last Resort to investigate claims of actual innocence

(North Carolina may create an Innocence Commission to study and report on cases where the courts may have convicted innocent people.  The bill has passed the House and is pending in the North Carolina state senate.)
 FAYETTVILLE N.C. – ONLINE:  Doan Nguyen, Omeako Lavon Brisbon and Lee Wayne Hunt went to court and said they did not kill the people they were charged with murdering.
Juries listened to the evidence and disagreed. All three men are serving life sentences.
The three took their cases to the state Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court. They lost.
Now the state legislature is considering a bill that would give these three and other inmates like them an avenue to challenge guilty verdicts. The bill would create the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, which would have the power to free wrongly convicted inmates.
It would be the first agency of its kind in the United States.
The legislation to create the Innocence Commission, drafted by Rep. Rick Glazier of Fayetteville, passed the state House in 2005. It is pending in the state Senate. Sen. Tony Rand of Fayetteville, the Senate majority leader, said he expects the Senate to approve it.
I. Beverly Lake, who retired in January as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, has pushed for the state to create the Innocence Commission. He is disturbed by widely publicized cases in which men have been freed from state prisons when their innocence was established — but only after they spent years behind bars.
The Innocence Commission would review cases when inmates could show there was evidence missed in their trials that could have established their innocence.
Unlike the rest of the legal system, the Innocence Commission would not be adversarial — prosecutor competing against defense lawyer. Instead, said Chris Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, it would be a fact-finding body.
“Our adversarial process works pretty well overall,? she said. “But you need to tweak it a little bit for these cases where we’ve got concerns to ensure that we’ve got the highest level of confidence in all the convictions.?
Under the proposed legislation, if the eight-member commission found compelling evidence that a person was innocent, it would refer the case to a panel of three judges. A unanimous vote by the judges would free the person. If the judges voted 2-1 for innocence, the case would go to the state Supreme Court for a final decision.
North Carolina prosecutors have generally disliked the concept. Although their professional organization is not fighting the bill, district attorneys such as Johnson Britt of Robeson County have argued that the existing system of judicial appeals gives the truly innocent plenty of opportunity to make their cases.
The wrongful convictions that Lake cites as examples of the system’s flaws, the prosecutors have cited as examples of the system working — after all, the men were freed.
Lee Wayne Hunt
If Hunt is exonerated, he could provide another example of how the existing system works.
Court records and news accounts say Hunt, 46, was a drug dealer from a dangerous, crime-ridden area of Cumberland County.
He is serving two life sentences plus 20 years for the murder of Roland “Tadpole? Matthews and his wife, Lisa, east of Fayetteville in 1984. They were shot and stabbed in their home.
A man named Gene Williford testified against Hunt in exchange for immunity in the murder case. As part of Williford’s deal, court documents say, several charges against him — unconnected to the murder case — were dropped.
Williford testified that Hunt was angry with Tadpole Matthews for stealing marijuana from him and wanted to teach him a lesson. Williford said he, Hunt and two other men, — Jerry Dale Cashwell and Kenneth West — went to the Matthews’ house. Williford left, he said, and returned later to drive Cashwell, West and Hunt away.
He testified that he saw blood on West and Hunt. He testified that West later said Lisa Matthews begged for her life.
The prosecutors contended that Hunt, West and Cashwell went into the house and killed the couple.
Hunt and Cashwell were convicted. Cashwell later won a new trial, then pleaded guilty to lesser charges and got a life sentence plus 50 years.
West was allowed to plead guilty to accessory charges and got three years. At West’s plea hearing, the prosecutors’ story changed: West waited outside while Hunt and Cashwell went inside and killed the couple.
Cashwell hanged himself in prison in 2002.
After Cashwell died, one of his lawyers came forward with new information.
The lawyer, Staples Hughes, said Cashwell admitted privately in 1985 that he committed the murders alone. Hunt wasn’t there, he said.
Hughes kept this to himself until Cashwell’s death because laws and ethical codes require lawyers to keep their clients’ statements secret unless they have permission to talk about them.
“I remained deeply troubled about my silence over the years,? Hughes said in an affidavit in December 2004. “I knew that my silence had helped put an innocent man away for life.?
In December 2004, the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence asked for Hunt’s case to be re-opened in Cumberland County Superior Court.
The Center on Actual Innocence is a group of law professors and their students at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It investigates wrongful convictions claims.
Hunt’s request to have his case reopened is pending in Cumberland County Superior Court. If a judge is convinced, Hunt could get a new trial or go free.
Even if Hunt is freed, Mumma — the director of the Center on Actual Innocence — doesn’t think his case would show that the current judicial-based system is sufficient to protect the wrongly convicted.
She cites the case of Darryl Hunt. Hunt, from Winston-Salem, spent 18 years in prison after he was wrongly convicted of a rape and murder. DNA evidence analyzed in 1994 determined that it was someone else’s semen in the victim’s body.
But Darryl Hunt did not get out of prison until 2003 and wasn’t cleared until 2004.
If a wrongly convicted man has to spend 18 years in prison, Mumma said, the system is failing.
Darryl Hunt tried 11 times after his conviction to get the courts to free him, she said.
Parental beliefs
Helen Joseph of Parkton and Dang Nguyen of Fayetteville insist that their sons are innocent. If they can establish evidence to support their beliefs, they don’t want their sons to sit in prison for years.
Joseph’s son, 25-year-old Omeako Brisbon, was charged with murdering brothers Jermaine and Johnny Jones Jr. They were shot to death five years ago outside The Zoo nightclub on Bragg Boulevard.
Brisbon insisted he was home all night. His right hand was broken and immobilized in a cast. He had a cookout with friends.
Three of Brisbon’s guests testified they stayed overnight and he was home the whole time. One of those guests said Brisbon was too drunk to drive.
Prosecutor Cal Colyer had two people testify they saw Brisbon at The Zoo that night.
Kareem Wilson testified that he did not see the shooting, but he saw Brisbon in the parking lot.
Rachel Gonzalez testified she saw Brisbon drive into the parking lot. She said that after Brisbon got out of his car, a man bumped into him. She said she saw Brisbon shoot the man.
The jury convicted Brisbon in 2004.
Dang Nguyen’s son, 21-year-old Doan, was accused of killing Tarandy Cutts, 18, of Fayetteville in 2002. Cutts was shot on a basketball court at Walker-Spivey School in Fayetteville.
Nguyen was playing basketball that evening with Bobby Nearn and Antonio Autry when Cutts rode up on his bicycle.
Nguyen testified on his own behalf. He said Autry killed Cutts. But two teenagers who had sneaked out of a nearby group home testified that — from a distance — they saw Nguyen shoot Cutts.
Nearn and Autry testified that they heard the shots but did not see the shooting.
Evidence required
Neither Brisbon nor Nguyen will get help from the Innocence Commission unless they come up with evidence that their juries never saw. The commission won’t retry a case on the old evidence, Mumma said.
Helen Joseph and Dang Nguyen are looking for new evidence.
Joseph hired private investigator T.V. O’Malley to find evidence to refute the statements from Gonzalez and Wilson. O’Malley helped free Timothy Hennis from Death Row in 1989 after his conviction in the murders of an Air Force wife and her children. O’Malley said he couldn’t find evidence to help Brisbon.
Joseph said she is seeking someone else to investigate and she plans to contact the Actual Innocence Center.
Doan Nguyen has asked the Actual Innocence Center to investigate his case. It is under review there.
His mother has a letter from a man who says he can corroborate Nguyen’s testimony about the killings.
The man, Gregory Tramaine McNeil, was in prison for burglary and robbery when he wrote his letter in 2003. He offered to help Nguyen in exchange for a reduction in his own prison sentence.
McNeil’s sentence expired in January 2005.
But now McNeil is charged with stealing a car from two women at gunpoint in January 2006.
Other options
Without the Innocence Commission, Brisbon and Nguyen’s main option is to file a motion for appropriate relief. It’s the court document Lee Wayne Hunt is using to try to get his case revisited.
Mumma, who has been a leader in pressing for an Innocence Commission, said a group that studied the innocence issue considered adjusting the laws for such motions. But the group, which then-Chief Justice Lake appointed several years ago, decided it would be simpler and more effective for the state to create the Innocence Commission.
The laws for motions for appropriate relief are too complex to easily adjust to address claims of wrongful conviction, Mumma said.
Such motions work well primarily for death penalty cases, she said. The severity and finality of the death penalty causes the state to closely examine them for flaws, she said.
“It’s the life sentences or the long sentences that don’t have that type of scrutiny,? Mumma said. She said she read recently that people on Death Row who claim innocence sometimes prefer to stay on Death Row because they think they will stand a better chance of winning their freedom there. “They don’t want to be removed for life because then everyone forgets about them,? she said.
By Paul Woolverton  Staff writer Reprinted from Fayetteville Online

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