The following editorial was published by the Winston-Salem (NC) Journal on May 19, 2011.
North Carolina district attorneys are pressing a wrong idea, that of not allowing inmates who have pleaded guilty to take their cases to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. The state legislature should not vote this measure into law.
Prosecutors, just like the rest of us, would like to think that those who plead guilty do so because they are in fact guilty. But the reality is that defendants sometimes plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit out of fear of losing at trial and getting a longer prison sentence than they'd get with a guilty plea offered by prosecutors. Defense attorneys sometimes advise their clients to do so. They may think that's the best they can do for their clients. And to put it bluntly, a relatively few defense attorneys, usually ones handling court-appointed cases, make such deals for their clients because they are incompetent or lazy.
Nationally, almost 25 percent of defendants later exonerated by DNA evidence initially pleaded guilty or offered police incriminating statements or a confession, according to the Innocence Project in New York, the Journal's Michael Hewlett reported recently. One of those defendants was Keith Brown, who pleaded guilty to second-degree rape and sex offense in Wilson and spent four years in prison before DNA tests freed him in 1997 and implicated a Florida inmate.
Those who plead guilty, of course, can always appeal their cases to our state's high courts, and they'll always have that right.* They should also retain the right to take their cases to the innocence inquiry commission, which was created a few years ago to address wrongful convictions. The commission chooses to hear only a few cases each year, ones in which defendants and their lawyers compile strong evidence of innocence. After a case, the commission decides whether a convict should be exonerated or the conviction should stand.
Many of us don't like to acknowledge that we might have made mistakes, and prosecutors are no different. But they, like everyone else, err. Most of the time, the mistakes are honest ones, and are often made by police detectives. In some chilling cases, police and prosecutors have knowingly withheld or skewed evidence.
Whatever the reason, such mistakes must be corrected. This is not just about innocent people going to prison. It's also about guilty ones remaining free, threatening us all.
In the interest of ensuring justice in that regard, those who plead guilty must retain their right to take their cases to the innocence inquiry commission.
*North Carolina is an exception in allowing people who plead guilty or no contest to file appeals. Most states BAR appeals by those who plead guilty or no contest.