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North Carolina creates a new route to exoneration

An official innocence commission can revisit death penalty convictions.

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Eighty-five percent of all executions in the US take place in the South.

For that reason alone, anti-death penalty activists claimed a major victory when North Carolina last week became the first state in the union to establish a government commission that will review evidence and, if warranted, send a recommendation of innocence to a three-judge panel.

The creation of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission fits in with a broader national inquiry into the moral responsibility of legal executions. In North Carolina, it was primarily those who work inside the justice system who helped bring about the commission.

It's an idea with appeal: Lawmakers in at least 12 other states – including Texas, where nearly half of all executions take place each year – are considering filing similar legislation next year, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"North Carolina is now the center of gravity in the death penalty debate," says David Elliot of the coalition. "That's significant because the death penalty increasingly is a Southern phenomenon."

There are 188 convicts in North Carolina on death row. After the high-profile exonerations of death row inmate Alan Gell and "lifer" Darryl Hunt in the state, a judicial review committee found a proliferation of both large and small mistakes that cast a shadow on the state's justice system. For one: 80 percent of freed prisoners were exonerated because of faulty eyewitness accounts. That opened some eyes, including those of then-Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake.

"We realized we had a problem and that we needed to take a look at what was causing these wrongful convictions and how we might correct the mistakes that were being made," says Judge Lake, a conservative jurist and death penalty supporter who led the reform effort.

The commission, signed into law by Gov. Mike Easley (D) last Thursday, is expected to convene in November.

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