Questions Of Innocence
NAACP: Attorney general should review wrongful convictions

MARTHA WAGGONER, Associated Press
Published: Thursday, March 24, 2016 at 3:35 p.m.

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s attorney general should set up a group to investigate claims of wrongful convictions to prevent more innocent people from being in prison, the head of the state NAACP said Thursday.

The Rev. William Barber also called on Gov. Pat McCrory to establish a task force to recommend ways to strengthen protections against wrongful convictions. At a news conference Thursday morning, he said both the governor and Attorney General Roy Cooper — running against each for governor in the 2016 election — should come together to support a moratorium on the death penalty.

“Put down being competitors for the season of Easter,” Barber said. “Come together and do what’s right.”

Lawyers in the attorney general’s office said Thursday afternoon that they met with the civil rights group. Cooper’s spokeswoman Noelle Talley said Cooper wants to work with the NACCP to address problems in the criminal justice system.

Talley says Cooper also wants more money for N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, which has been involved in releasing eight innocent men.

Barber held the news conference to focus on two murder cases — one in Winston-Salem and another in Greenville — where defense attorneys say innocent men have been in prison since the 1990s. Both men rejected plea deals for lesser sentences because they refused to admit to murders they didn’t commit, Barber said.

“This is what happens when a system is infected and infested with racial class bias,” Barber said. “And the only way to stop it is to deal with it, have grown-up conversations, free the innocent people” and a create a system that prevents wrongful convictions.

Conviction integrity units such as ones in Harris County, Texas, and Brooklyn, New York, are one reason a record number of people falsely convicted of crimes — 149 — were exonerated in 2015, Sam Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, has said. The registry is a project of the University of Michigan Law School that has documented more than 1,740 such cases in the U.S.

After the news conference, participants delivered letters to the offices of McCrory and Cooper, calling for the release of the two men — Kalvin Michael Smith in Winston-Salem and Dontae Sharpe in Greenville. Their families and supporters also attended the news conference.

McCrory’s office didn’t immediately respond to Barber’s comments.