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Advocating for the wrongfully convicted 

In a datebook in her bag, Christine Mumma carries a list of the names of North Carolina inmates she believes are innocent of the crimes they were convicted of.

Joseph Sledge was on the list. He spent four decades in prison for a double murder he didn't commit. Mumma worked on Sledge's case for 10 years, and she was his attorney when last month, a three-judge panel exonerated the 70 year old based on DNA evidence.

"People say, 'Are you happy,'" says Mumma (pronounced Moo-ma). "No, I'm not happy. Joseph was in prison for 40 years. I knew how to get him out of prison but I don't know how to help him adjust to life."

Mumma, 53, is the executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, a nonprofit established in 2000 to coordinate the efforts of various innocence projects in North Carolina's seven law schools. For 20 years, she has worked at the forefront of and behind the scenes of the criminal justice system. She advocates for reform to reduce instances of wrongful conviction, and works tirelessly on the cases of individuals like Sledge.

click to enlarge Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence.

Mumma spent a decade in corporate finance, and then earned a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she is now a professor. After law school Mumma worked at the State Supreme Court as a law clerk to Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake.

Mumma says her business background helped forge a professional kinship with the Chief Justice, who had concerns about public confidence in the justice system. At the same time, Mumma also dabbled in innocence work, and brought the corporate world's philosophy of "continuous improvement" to her new role in the courts. Together, she and Lake established the Actual Innocence Commission, a legislative study group.

"We had a joint interest," Mumma says. "He wanted to increase public confidence and I wanted to increase reliability of conviction, so we made a good team."

The Actual Innocence Commission provided a forum for dialogue between people in the criminal justice system. Laws emerged from the study group that now govern eyewitness identification, recording of interrogations, the reliability of forensic science and preservation of evidence and the post-conviction process.

North Carolina became the first state in the country to have statutory requirements for how identification lineups are conducted, improving their effectiveness and helping to remove bias. State law also requires police to film interrogations of suspects in all violent felonies and of all juvenile suspects.

And in 2007, the Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency separate from the center, was established to help tackle post-conviction review. So far, the Innocence Inquiry Commission has exonerated eight innocent North Carolinians.

"We wanted the commission to have access, to be able to get into evidence rooms and conduct their own searches," Mumma said.

In 18 cases, the commission has found evidence that was reported to have been lost, missing or destroyed; five of those investigations resulted in exoneration.The Innocence Inquiry Commission staff can access to often-disorganized evidence storage rooms and subpoena court records. Old documents and misplaced biological evidence can be the deciding factor in proving a person's innocence.

"There were a lot of people fighting us from all sides," Mumma says. "There are some people who are embarrassed about what's been uncovered by this process.."

Although Mumma has been personally pushing for reforms at the Legislature, the Actual Innocence Commission has been on hiatus since 2006. Mumma hopes to work with Chief Justice Mark Martin to reactivate the commission since, she says, there is much more policy work to be done.

"What Chris has done for our state is pretty incredible," says Cheryl Sullivan, a staff attorney at the Center for Actual Innocence, who works closely with Mumma. "She has helped so many people who will probably never know that she was the one behind these reforms."

Right now, the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence has 58 active cases, most of which, Mumma says, will not go to the Innocence Inquiry Commission. As for her list, four names, which she declined to disclose are left on it now.

"Maybe someday there won't be a list," she says. "Any prosecutor who wants me stop doing this work— and I know there's a lot of them— they can help me get rid of those four names."

From this link you can read more information about the various innocence centers, commissions and projects.
  • 2015 Citizen Award winner Christine Mumma

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