The Fitzsimon File

There was good news and bad news for criminal-justice policy this legislative session, and both were on display as the N.C. House gave final approval to legislation that will establish the Innocence Inquiry Commission to review inmates’ claims of actual innocence.

The commission is the brainchild of I. Beverly Lake Jr., former chief justice of the state Supreme Court and a lifelong conservative, law-and-order Republican. Several years ago, Lake convened a panel of lawyers, prosecutors and law-enforcement officials in response to a series of high-profile cases in which innocent men were convicted and sent to prison, only to be freed after DNA evidence proved they did not commit the crimes.

The legislation to establish the Innocence Commission came out of that group and has been making its way through the General Assembly for the last two years, with widespread support from prosecutors and defense lawyers alike.

Rep. Rick Glazier shepherded the bill through the legislative process. Glazier is a lawyer who defended a man who’d been convicted and sent to prison for a rape he did not commit.

Glazier managed to remain patient during the final debate on the commission, fending off claims by other House members that the justice system is working well now and that the governor could handle any cases in which the inmate’s guilt was in question.

Most of the opposition came from Republicans, including House Minority Leader Joe Kiser. A former sheriff, he maintained that there were already enough safeguards in place — apparently presuming that he knows more about the justice system than former Chief Justice Lake.

Glazier pointed out that under current law, evidence of innocence is not enough to support an appeal of a guilty verdict. Combined with the examples of wrongful convictions in the last several years, that made a pretty compelling case for supporting the commission.

The final House vote was 86-28, a significant step toward restoring public faith in the criminal-justice system. But opponents’ questions and overall lack of understanding about the way the system works, combined with many lawmakers’ fear of being seen as soft on crime, serve as troubling reminders that a sane debate on crime and punishment is a rarity in the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, proposals introduced this year to make small changes in the state’s structured-sentencing laws have gone nowhere, stuck in the House Rules Committee. This spring, former Superior Court Judge Tom Ross testified before a legislative committee, encouraging lawmakers to support the sentencing changes. These proposals came out of the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, a panel made up of law-enforcement officials, judges, legislators and private citizens. The recommendations would save the state 2,500 prison beds and billions of dollars over the next 10 years — without jeopardizing public safety. That’s why the Conference of District Attorneys does not oppose the changes.

But it doesn’t matter. In an election year, legislative leaders don’t want to pass anything that’s less than extra tough on crime — even if prosecutors support it. That makes the vote for the Innocence Inquiry Commission all the more significant. At the same time, however, the General Assembly’s overall attitude toward criminal justice remains simplistic and frustrating.

[Veteran news reporter Chris Fitzsimon, the executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, reports on what’s happening in the N.C. General Assemby in The Fitzsimon File.]

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