This Week in Innocence


Two innocence-related cases in the news this week:

First, North Carolina's state-run innocence commission—the only state-run innocence agency in the country—has found its first exoneration.

…a panel of North Carolina judges ruled Wednesday that a man was wrongfully convicted of murdering a prostitute in 1991 and freed him after 16 years in prison.

The three-judge panel found "clear and convincing evidence" that the man, Gregory F. Taylor, was innocent and had been convicted based on flawed evidence and unreliable testimony.

It was the first case won by the commission, which was established in 2006 after a wave of embarrassing wrongful convictions in North Carolina…

After the verdict, the Wake County district attorney, C. Colon Willoughby Jr., apologized to Mr. Taylor.

"I told him I'm very sorry he was convicted," Mr. Willoughby told The Associated Press. "I wish we had had all of this evidence in 1991."

Second, next week Texas is scheduled to execute Henry Watkins Skinner for killing his girlfriend and her two sons in 1993. Northwestern University's Medill Innocence Project—which has a pretty good record in these cases—believes there's a good chance he is innocent. The most troubling part of Skinner's pending execution (and there's plenty about his case to be troubled by) is that there's still DNA from the crime scene that prosecutors refuse to test. So far, Texas' courts have refused to force the state to make the evidence available for testing. Skinner has maintained his innocence since his arrest.

A DNA test isn't expensive, and isn't particularly time consuming. The problem in this case seems to be that the prosecution can put Skinner at the crime scene at the time of the murders, and that's good enough for them. Skinner says he was comatose from an alcohol and codeine overdose when the murders took place, an alibi Medill says is backed by blood tests taken after his arrest. A DNA test on hair or blood at the scene that doesn't match Skinner or the victims, then, wouldn't necessarily prove Skinner is innocent, but it would certainly complicate the state's case against him, especially if it matches the person Skinner's attorneys suspect committed the crimes, an uncle of Skinner's girlfriend. But if you're going to execute someone, it seems like you probably should have first exhausted any possibility that someone else committed the crime.

Skinner's pending execution is all the more troubling given Texas Gov. Rick Perry's efforts to bury a state forensic commission's investigation into the state's possible wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2003.