Tensions between two organizations that work to clear the wrongfully convicted surfaced Tuesday in a legislative committee meeting.
Christine Mumma, executive director of the nonprofit N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, gave a long list of suggestions for the General Assembly to consider what she said would improve efficiency and fairness. Some of her recommendations were critical of procedures used by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, which is a state agency.
Her remarks were made before a committee looking into criminal appellate issues.
Mumma said criminal defendants filing claims with the innocence commission should not be interviewed or asked to provide DNA samples unless they have an attorney advising them about the implications of waiving their rights not to comply. She wants defendants to have that advice from court-appointed attorneys at the investigative stage of the case rather than the later “formal inquiry” stage.
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Mumma contended that the Innocence Inquiry Commission was giving laboratories permission to consume evidence through testing and that biological evidence was being destroyed without giving defendants notice, in violation of state law. After the meeting, Lindsey Guice Smith, executive director of the Innocence Inquiry Commission, said Mumma’s comments were a “mischaracterization.”
Smith said state law permits the agency to consume evidence during testing. She said the practice isn’t common, but said it can happen in older cases where DNA has degraded. Defendants consent to that testing and are told that the evidence could be consumed, she said. That typically does happen in the investigation stage, she said.
Mumma also said the commission overuses protective orders that prevent the exonerated from using material from their case files.
She told the committee that for seven years her nonprofit organization and the state innocence agency exchanged client lists to avoid duplication, but that the commission stopped doing that in September. She said the sharing should resume.
Eighty-eight counties have never filed a legally required notice prior to destroying biological evidence in cases resolved by a guilty plea, according to Mumma. “I can guarantee you it’s not because evidence isn’t being destroyed,” Mumma said. “… There will be a lawsuit.”
Mumma suggested reducing the number of judges that decide Innocence Inquiry Commission cases from three to two.
She said the commission could cut its workload in half if applications were limited to homicide, robbery and sexual assault offenses. That would help alleviate the backlog of cases, some of which have taken more than four years to resolve.
Rep. Darren Jackson, a Knightdale Democrat, asked Mumma if she had shared her recommendations with the district attorneys association or the state courts agency. He said her list represented suggestions that have been discussed with those groups as well as some that had not.