Raleigh Charter High School students Stuti Joshi and Ava Naran may be on summer vacation, but they are still researching legislation and knocking on politicians’ doors to finish a school project they just can’t shake.
The rising juniors, both 15, want to change North Carolina state law so men and women wrongfully convicted of crimes do not have to wait for a pardon from the governor to receive monetary compensation.
They say it’s a matter of fairness.
“The state hasn’t taken responsibility and made up for their mistakes,” Joshi said.
Joshi and Naran began their quest as part of a public policy research project for their honors civics and economics class. Each year, students meet with local policy experts and come up with a plan for how they would change things in their communities.
This year, students studied topics including the public defender system, the religious exemption for North Carolina magistrates, skateboard parks and private surveillance drones.
Their teacher, Melani Winter, said she wants students to explore the intersection of policy and politics, so they know how to advocate for issues they care about.
“I would like them to understand it and be empowered to work within it,” she said.
Joshi and Naran have gone far beyond the requirements of the class, but they’re happy to do it.
“Even though we’re done with school, it doesn’t mean we have to stop learning about things in our community,” Naran said.
The pair was drawn to their cause when they heard at an Amnesty International meeting about the case of wrongfully convicted half-brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown.
The men were convicted of rape and murder in 1984 and spent three decades in prison before a Superior Court judge last year threw out their convictions and declared them innocent.
New DNA evidence had linked someone else to the crime. The men have IQ scores in the 50s or 60s and as teenagers were coerced into confessing.
But because the men were freed by a judge, not by the Innocence Inquiry Commission, they needed a pardon from Gov. Pat McCrory that would allow them to proceed with their request for compensation. The state allows $50,000 for every year spent wrongfully incarcerated, up to a maximum of $750,000.
Joshi and Naran wanted to help the half-brothers, so they chose the question of pardons and compensation for their project topic. They have drafted legislative language that would change the law to eliminate the need for a governor’s pardon.
They also met with the sponsor of a similar bill and started following the news like they never have before.
They cheered in early June when McCrory issued a pardon for McCollum and Brown, but they are not satisfied with a victory in just one case.
“It’s great that they got their pardon, but I still want to push for this so it doesn’t happen again,” Joshi said.
Vernetta Alston, a staff attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, said she was impressed by the girls’ energy, smarts and dedication when she spoke with them about their project.
“You have to be encouraged at the very least by students taking an interest,” she said.