Since 1989, the United States has witnessed 289 DNA exonerations, with exonerees serving an average of thirteen years in prison. Although DNA and its unmatched power for conclusive results is what brought popular attention to wrongful convictions, the scope of the problem is vastly larger than the number of known DNA exonerations. The actual number of convicted individuals who are factually innocent is unknown. The state of North Carolina has recently responded to this national crisis via a newly created state agency. This essay applauds North Carolina's response, but urges that ordinary citizens, qua jurors, be active participants in its important work.
Seventeen years after the United States heralded its first DNA exoneration, in 2006 North Carolina established the North Carolina Inquiry Innocence Commission ("Inquiry Commission"). The Inquiry Commission is the first-ever state agency in the United States with the power to review, investigate and refer claims of actual innocence for judicial review and relief. The Inquiry Commission's pioneering contribution to the problem of wrongful convictions is the much needed post-conviction flexibility afforded by its sophisticated screening, investigating, reviewing and remedial functions. Consequently, the Inquiry Commission is a public policy turning point in the modem wrongful conviction epoch.
This essay argues that, in order for the Inquiry Commission to most adequately remedy the harms of wrongful convictions, its final review must include the deliberative voice of jurors selected from the community where the conviction occurred. The discussion proceeds as follows. Part II briefly addresses the origin and structure of innocence commissions in other states. Part III addresses the unique structure of North Carolina's Inquiry Commission. Part IV offers a proposal for enhancing the Inquiry Commission's effectiveness through inclusion of post-conviction jurors in the final stage of review now performed exclusively by a three-judge panel. Including jurors in the Inquiry Commission's final review of innocence cases deemed worthy of judicially-impaneled review will achieve three important "confidence-enhancing" goals: it would reinforce the jury's central role in our criminal justice system, protect the review process from political pressures on elected officials, and honor the local jurisdiction's natural and substantial interest in the ultimate resolution of the controversy. As it stands now, the Inquiry Commission is a good thing. But it could be even better.
Mary Kelly Tate, Commissioning Innocence and Restoring Confidence: the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission and the Missing Deliberative Citizen, 64 Me. L. Rev. 531 (2012).