Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2023, $600,000)
The NC Center on Actual Innocence identifies, investigates, and litigates credible claims of innocence asserted by indigent inmates convicted of a felony in NC or SC. Our primary mission is to identify and correct cases of wrongful conviction to obtain justice for those imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, as well as for the victims of those crimes and the actual perpetrators. The Center’s secondary mission is to educate policymakers, the public, and legal communities about the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions, and to promote emerging solutions to increase the reliability of outcomes.
Life behind bars for someone who commits a crime is undoubtedly difficult. Life behind bars for someone convicted of a crime they did not commit is a tragic injustice that takes a psychological, emotional, and physical toll beyond compare. During this time, the victim of the crime and the true perpetrator has not yet received true justice. When an innocent person is finally exonerated, it decreases public confidence in the justice system and negatively impacts future investigations and adjudications.
The goal of this project is to broaden two existing collaborations. The Center previously entered into an agreement with the NC State Crime Lab to review microscopic hair comparison (MHC) cases that resulted in convictions without the use of confirmatory DNA testing, as MHC evidence on its own has proven to be unreliable. Four of the Center’s current cases resulted from the collaborative review of that data. The Center anticipates that this project will continue to expand to other areas of forensic science such as DNA Mixture cases where previous standards of analysis have been called into question and resulted in known wrongful convictions.
The Center’s ongoing collaboration with the Durham DA’s office resulted in a focused review of Durham County convictions that allowed Center staff to prioritize cases at the highest risk for error in a county plagued with a history of prosecutorial misconduct. Of the remaining cases, three are currently in litigation and should be resolved by the end of 2024. The Center hopes that with the assistance of this grant, it can work collaboratively with another DA to conduct a joint review of high-risk convictions in their jurisdiction.
In addition to cases from the two initiatives, the Center currently has more cases in advanced stages of investigation and litigation than it ever has and must have support to bring those cases to fruition.