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The North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission

Innocence commission proposes review board

CARY, NC - A commission charged with handling claims from prisoners that they are not guilty of the crimes they've been convicted of has proposed creating a review board to review those claims.

The N.C. Actual Innocence Commission voted 19-9 Monday to send the proposal to the General Assembly. If enacted, North Carolina would be the first state with an agency to screen claims of innocence.

The idea for such a body came after a series of wrongly convicted people were released from prison, including Alan Gell, who spent nine years on death row but was later acquitted of murder.

The commission had to approve the plan soon because it faced an April 20 deadline for it to be considered by the legislature this year. The commission would have had to wait two years before being able to introduce the bill.

It's the right thing for all of us to do. It's not right to wait two more years, former Superior Court Judge Tom Ross said in support of the measure.

Ross was joined by prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, law professors and law-enforcement officials, although some acknowledged support of the concept with a bit of hesitation about the details.

Although I might feel a little bit uncomfortable, I can still hold my head up and say I've done what I think is right, Burlington Police Chief Mike Gauldin said.

The proposal was opposed by Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby, Mel Chilton with the N.C. Victim Assistance Network and some law-enforcement officials.

Although not rejecting an innocence review panel, they wanted more time to get support among their constituents.

New youth program provides motivational speakers, tutoring and jobs

Teens participating in a new after-school program operated by Southern University in Shreveport mix a taste of the real world with reality TV twice a week.

Youth Network Initiative targets teens at risk of dropping out, young adults who dropped out of school and young adults with a high school diploma who could benefit from career training. The program, funded with a $182,000 federal Workforce Investment Act grant, serves 22 students and will take in another 10 when career training starts.

Middle and high school students receive tutoring, help with homework and preparation for state standardized tests. Dropouts can take classes to prepare for the general equivalency diploma test. The program helps younger participants find summer or part-time work.

Dominique Jackson and Lisa Bright, students at Booker T. Washington High School in Shreveport, said they're looking forward to starting work soon. Bright will take a part-time job at SUSLA. Jackson doesn't know where she'll work, but I'm depending on that check this summer.

I have good people skills, so I'm hoping I have a job with the public, Jackson said. I do good with kids, too.

Bright and Jackson were among about a dozen high school students who listened intently Monday as Shreveporter Calvin Willis described his 22 years in prison. He was wrongly convicted of rape. DNA evidence freed him from Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 2003.

Youth Network Initiative provides a variety of speakers to supplement classroom work and educational games.

Hopefully, it will motivate students to get their education and show them that, even if you have shortcomings, you can move up from it and move on, said Arcenia Anthony, SUSLA continuing education coordinator.

After more than an hour of give and take with the students, Willis departed and the group turned to academics, engaging in a raucous game based on the TV show Fear Factor. Students wrinkled their noses as a young man tipped a plastic bag back and swallowed a pinkish-brown substance.

It's potted meat, Anthony said, laughing.

At another site, five older teens studying for the GED also are planning two community service projects. The first, a health fair scheduled for May 7, will focus on everything that helps a community, including physical and mental health, substance abuse and violence prevention. One on May 14, dubbed Community Unity Fair, will focus on food and clothing drives.

We're having them research, talk to people at churches, at the city, at Southern, said Veronica Crandall, SUSLA's youth programs manager. They wanted to make sure we really were going to do this, not just sit around in class talking about it.

Innocence and the Death Penalty

For Every Six People Executed In North Carolina, One Innocent Person Has Been Removed From Death Row.

The most compelling reason for a temporary halt on executions in North Carolina is that problems with the current capital punishment system are so widespread that there is the real possibility that an innocent person could be executed. The people in North Carolina have reason to fear that could happen. Under our current death penalty law, at least six innocent people have been wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder - four of their stories are below.

Alan Gell: State Hides Key Evidence of Innocence

Alan Gell spent nine years behind bars, more than four of them on death row awaiting his execution, for a 1995 murder in Bertie County. In 2002, over objections of the Attorney General's office -- and while a five-part series on the case was running in The News & Observer -- a judge ordered a new trial because the Attorney General's office had withheld compelling evidence of Gell's innocence. Forensic experts agree the victim died at a time Gell could not have committed the murder. Seventeen witnesses said they saw the victim alive well after the only time Gell could have done it. Many of those statements, along with an audiotape showing that a key witness planned to frame Gell, were not shared with the defense during Gell's trial, and he was sentenced to death.

The Attorney General's office continued to seek Gell's execution even after the evidence of his innocence was revealed. A judge threw out Gell's conviction and Attorney General Roy Cooper decided to retry Gell for the murder. The jury in the second trial deliberated for less than three hours before finding Gell not guilty. On February 18, 2004, Alan Gell was released from prison after spending almost nine years in jail for a crime he did not commit.

Darryl Hunt: After 18 Years, DNA Matches True Killer

Darryl Hunt was tried and convicted twice of the 1984 rape and murder of Deborah Sykes. In his first trial, the state sought the death penalty, and the jury sentenced him to life. Hunt consistently maintained his innocence. In 1994, scientific advances allowed for DNA testing of evidence that revealed that the DNA of the rapist did not match Hunt's. The State then changed its story insisting that there was more than one assailant, and that Hunt still could have killed her. Hunt remained in prison. In December 2003, shortly after the Winston-Salem Journal published an eight-part series, the DNA from the crime scene was finally run through a database and a match was found. A man who had been identified in a similar rape a few months after Sykes' murder was arrested. He confessed to having committed the rape and murder alone, and apologized to Hunt and to the victim's family. Hunt was exonerated on February 6, 2004, and formally pardoned by the Governor on April 15, 2004.

Jerry Hamilton: DNA Tests Point to Innocence

Jerry Hamilton has been behind bars since 1996, and spent more than six years on death row. His conviction and death sentence were overturned in April 2003 because the state withheld evidence of his innocence. The key witness against Hamilton was his codefendant, who made a deal with prosecutors and was sentenced to 12 years in prison after recanting his own confession. Crime scene DNA samples tested by the SBI after Hamilton's trial match the codefendant and do not match Hamilton. There was no other physical evidence tying Hamilton to the crime. He is currently awaiting a new trial.

Charles Munsey: Records in State's Possession Prove Key Witness Lied

Charles Munsey was sentenced to death in 1996. The state's star witness was a jailhouse informant who said Munsey confessed to him when they were both in Central Prison. Prison records showed the informant was lying, that he was never at Central Prison with Munsey. State files that were finally turned over to the defense showed the prosecutor and the Attorney General's office knew about those records. Even after another man confessed to the crime, the state continued to press for Munsey's execution. A judge threw out the conviction and the state dropped the murder charge against Munsey, but he died in prison before he could be released.

In addition to Gell, Hamilton, and Munsey, Tim Hennis and Alfred Rivera were also sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. Both were ultimately acquitted in retrials, Hennis in 1989, and Rivera in 1999.

Charles Munsey
DA turned blind eye to evidence snitch lied

A jailhouse informant took center stage in 1996 when Charles Munsey went on trial for his life, accused of beating a woman to death with a rifle butt in Wilkes County.

Munsey, 48, had a lengthy record of property crimes -- safecracking, breaking and entering, larceny -- but no history of violence. The case against him was thin: One witness said he had seen Munsey's car in the vicinity of the slaying. A month later, Munsey pawned a gun that had been taken from the scene.

The trial turned on Thursday, June 6, when Timothy Bryan Hall took the stand and swore to be truthful. Munsey turned to his lead lawyer, Brad Cameron.

I've never seen the man before, Munsey told Cameron. Hall's testimony was the prosecutor's entire case against Munsey. Hall's story was dramatic -- and utterly false.

A former inmate, Hall testified that he went to the hospital at Central Prison in late 1993 to be treated for stomach ulcers. Hall said he spoke with Munsey in the yard -- and that Munsey was sitting at a picnic table, wearing an orange jumpsuit.

As they stood a few feet apart, separated by a single chain-link fence, Munsey confessed, Hall said; he had surprised Shirley Walker in the house. She slapped him. Munsey crushed her head with a rifle butt. We just had a small 10- to 15-minute conversation, Hall said. Hall testified he had no ulterior motive to testify against Munsey. I found God a few years ago, or a few months ago -- and I -- it's just the right thing to do. No matter, no matter what happens to me, I still feel like in my heart I've done the right thing.

Hall's testimony blindsided Munsey and his attorneys. They had seen Hall's name on the witness list but had no idea who he was.

On cross-examination, Cameron scrambled to pin Hall down. Over that weekend, Cameron and his co-counsel, John Gambill, sought more information. Had Hall ever been in Central Prison?

That Monday, District Attorney Randy Lyon received a fax from Dale Talbert, a special deputy attorney general, about Hall's prison records. The judge announced that Lyon had shared the records with Munsey and his lawyers. Lyon had not. He did not hand over Talbert's memo or Hall's medical records. Talbert's memo was telling: A search of Hall's prison records and a search of his medical records showed no sign of him having been at Central Prison. The med records section staff would testify it would be nearly impossible for Hall to have been at Central without there being written documentation of the fact, Talbert wrote. However, as a former prosecutor, I would argue that the absence of written documentation does not preclude the possibility that Hall was at Central.

Lyon sat on these records. Munsey's lawyers poked some holes in Hall's testimony; Central Prison had no orange jumpsuits or picnic tables. The lawyers did not win over the jury. Munsey was sentenced to death. Soon after, the real killer came forward. Oid Michael Hawkins, formerly a brother-in-law of Munsey, summoned two Wilkes County deputies to a prison where he was incarcerated and confessed. Two months later, after nothing happened, Hawkins wrote the Munsey family to say Munsey was not the killer -- Hawkins was.

Munsey 's family told his appeals attorney. The case began to unravel. Hawkins confessed in a sworn affidavit.

On Jan. 5, 1998, a Monday, a trial judge ordered Lyon to turn over all his files and all police files.

Six days later, after church services, he went home and hanged himself. The files contained Talbert's memo and Hall's medical records from prison.

Ben Dowling-Sendor, Munsey's appeals attorney, said that Lyon's wrongdoing was greater than Talbert's.

Randy Lyon sat on the medical records, Dowling-Sendor said. He's hiding records. He's lying. Talbert counseled the prosecutor to make a factual argument -- that he knew was not true -- with virtual certainty. Talbert declined to comment.

At a subsequent hearing, Hawkins testified how he bludgeoned Walker to death. Hall, the jailhouse informant, swore he could not remember his earlier testimony. When asked whether he had perjured himself, he refused to testify by invoking the Fifth Amendment.

Superior Court Judge Tom Ross tossed out Munsey's conviction and ordered a new trial.

While in prison, Munsey had started smoking -- up to six packs a day, said his son, Bobby. Four months after he won a new trial and while his lawyers were negotiating a deal to free him, Munsey died of lung cancer in a hospital in New Bern. He was still in custody.