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For at least three decades, the wrongful convictions that jailed innocent people for crimes they didn't commit have shaken public confidence in the police officers, prosecutors and judges who shepherd criminal defendants through North Carolina's courts.

N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission begins Nov. 1 

Questions raised about victims' rights advocate

For at least three decades, the wrongful convictions that jailed innocent people for crimes they didn't commit—people like Darryl Hunt, Lesly Jean and many others—have shaken public confidence in the police officers, prosecutors and judges who shepherd criminal defendants through North Carolina's courts. On Nov. 1, the state launched a newly created commission that seeks to restore that confidence: the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first panel in the country that investigates convicted felons' claims of innocence.

But questions remain about one of the commissioners' commitment to review the facts without prejudice. Mel Chilton, the executive director of the N.C. Victim Assistance Network, doesn't believe the commission should even exist. She has stated that the number of wrongfully convicted felons is overblown and that the commission adds a layer of bureaucracy that's a step back for victims' rights.

"N.C. Victim Assistance Network has never wavered in its opposition to the commission," Chilton says. Still, in September she accepted the appointment by John Martin, chief judge of the N.C. Court of Appeals.

"Very clearly this is not an issue that I wanted to see move forward," Chilton says, "but now that it has, we want to be a voice for victims to make sure victims are treated fairly." Asked how victims' rights would be relevant to the factual evidence the commission will consider, Chilton says simply she believes advocates need a seat at the table.

The legislation that led to the commission calls for one of the members to be a victims' advocate, but it's unclear why Martin appointed Chilton, who does not believe in the commission's mission. Martin did not return phone calls.

Chris Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, led the Chief Justice's Criminal Justice Study Commission in drafting the legislation.

"When we asked what we could do to get her support, she said there was nothing we could do," Mumma says of Chilton, who was also a member of the study group. "She was philosophically opposed," Mumma says. "The good thing is that there is a record. If there is a case that's open and shut and the victims' advocate votes against it—that's going to be reviewed."

Chilton insists that she won't bring any bias to the review of innocence cases. "I hope that taking the position of accepting the appointment states to anyone that I would use integrity and vote on the evidence."

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker and Judge John Martin, chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, appointed the members of the inquiry commission in September. Other members include: Wade Smith, the Raleigh defense attorney who represents Collin Finnerty in the Duke lacrosse case; Jaqueline Greenlee, a college administrator in Guilford County; Barbara Pickens, Lincoln County sheriff; Heath Jenkins, Stanley police chief; Charles Becton, an attorney and former N.C. Court of Appeals judge; William Kenerly, a district attorney in Salisbury; and Quentin Sumner, a superior court judge in the 7th Judicial District, who will serve as chairman.

According to the legislation, the eight-member commission will hear criminal cases that present new factual evidence. The commission will then vote about whether or not there is sufficient evidence of innocence to merit further review; if so, the case is then passed on to a three-judge panel. If those judges unanimously agree that the convicted person has proved by clear and convincing evidence that he or she is innocent, the conviction will be overturned.

Since Gov. Mike Easley signed the legislation at the beginning of August, the commission has received more than 80 applications from convicts seeking reviews of their cases.

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