North Carolina has added a new restriction to its compensation law for those wrongfully convicted: Those who plead guilty are no longer eligible. Denying compensation to those who “contributed” to their conviction by entering a guilty plea has been a common argument from those who seek to minimize the state’s responsibility in miscarriages of justice or deny compensation to those who have had years of their lives stolen through wrongful conviction. But, it’s an argument that should no longer have credibility.
It’s now widely known, as reported by the Innocence Project here, that about 25 percent of those exonerated by DNA falsely confessed, made self-incriminating statements, or pled guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. Coercion, fear of a long sentence or death, and other “motivators” prompt false admissions of guilt.
The profile of those who pled guilty and later were exonerated by DNA makes this new restriction particularly repugnant. Who are most vulnerable to falsely confessing? Young people; those of limited mental capacity or education; those whose reasoning ability has been reduced due to fatigue, substance abuse, or stress; and the innocent, who, under duress, sometimes confess to relieve discomfort while trusting that the system will ultimately get it right.
Laudably, North Carolina created an Innocence Inquiry Commission and compensates $50,000 per year for wrongful imprisonment. The state recently paid Robert Wilcoxson $545,591 for his wrongful incarceration, but under the new law, he wouldn’t have been compensated unless the governor pardoned him, because he pled to second-degree murder.
Another Innocence Project client in the state testified that when he was 16 years old the then-Sheriff said he could be sentenced to life if he didn’t plead guilty. He pled and served seven years in prison.
As reported by the Citizen-Times here, the bill change was considered a compromise: “The N.C. Conference of District Attorneys pushed for a change prohibiting anyone who pleaded guilty to a crime from even filing an innocence claim with the commission.”
The fact that the North Carolina District Attorneys Conference would advocate a policy that totally denies the lessons of two decades of well-documented DNA-proven wrongful convictions would be laughable if its results were not adding more burdens to those already grossly mistreated by the state, whether intentionally or not.
This year has seen the public release of the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law, which documents in a searchable database early 900 exonerations in the United States since 1989. The definition of exoneration in the database is conservative. Included are those exonerated by DNA, or based on formal decisions by courts or executive officers. Another 1,170 group exonerations following 13 separate large police scandals put the total number of exonerations at about 2,000 as of March 1, 2012.
Of the nearly 900 exonerations with significant searchable date, 16% included a false confession. According to the Registry report, among homicide exonerations, some “exonerates were falsely implicated by a co-defendant who confessed. Including such cases, the convictions in 39% of homicide exonerations were caused in part by false confessions.”
For the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys to advocate that those who plead guilty should never have the opportunity to have their claim of innocence reviewed in worthy cases—for example, in which evidence was weak, evidence is now discredited, new DNA testing is available, key witnesses have recanted, new credible suspects have been revealed, etc.—is appalling. It either reflects an indefensible lack of knowledge of current findings in criminal justice or it is a blatant insult to our intelligence. What will it take for district attorneys conferences and associations, representing those whose sworn responsibility is to pursue truth and justice, to stop promoting policies that do just the opposite?