Saturday, February 18, 2012

Prosecutors want greater role in NC Innocence Commission

Prosecutors want to play a bigger role in the state's Innocence Inquiry Commission, the 5-year-old panel that reviews convicted felons' claims that they didn't commit a crime, it was the first such entity in the United States, according to The News & Observer.

Prosecutors were not successful in their attempt to include in the bill a prohibition on anyone who has pleaded guilty filing a claim with the commission.

National data show that about one-quarter of all convictions overturned by DNA evidence were of people who had falsely confessed or admitted their crime, often to get a shorter sentence in a plea deal.

Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle and Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr., both representing the state's prosecutors' association, outlined the changes they'd still like to see.

Prosecutors should be able to cross-examine witnesses and offer rebuttal testimony during the commission hearing, which takes place in front of the full commission, they said. Currently, prosecutors can submit written statements. "We'd like to be afforded the same opportunities the defendant has," Boyle told the The News & Observer.

Those on the other side say that phase of the process isn't adversarial but is a fact-finding hearing where it wouldn't be appropriate to present a prosecution and defense. That happens if the case goes to the three-judge panel.

District attorneys also would like to shift the burden of proof that is on defendants to the standard in criminal trials - "beyond a reasonable doubt" - instead of the current standard of "clear and convincing." Doyle said that would be especially appropriate when evidence that wasn't introduced at trial comes up. The other side opposes it, arguing that judges are in a better position than juries to know the law and don't need the higher burden of proof, reported The News & Observer.

Prosecutors also want to ensure someone who recants their trial testimony at an innocence commission hearing can be prosecuted if they perjured themselves. The commission can ask a judge to grant limited immunity in order to compel someone to testify, protecting them from prosecution for their earlier testimony. They can be prosecuted if they lie to the commission.

So far, the commission only has requested that immunity once and it was denied.

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