We Need More Innocence Commissions

It's time to do something about all the innocent people locked up behind bars.


The five or six masochists who read this column by choice rather than by accident know it's not exactly given to cheerleading for more government. So they'll want to note this edition—which argues for not just more government spending, but a whole new state agency.

That agency would be an Innocence Inquiry Commission—something North Carolina has that no other state has. You might have heard about North Carolina's from recent news coverage of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, who were set free this month after serving three decades in prison for a crime they did not commit.

Three decades. When the cell doors slammed shut on McCollum and Brown, who were 19 and 15 at the time, home computers used 5-inch floppy disks and MS-DOS, Ma Bell was still a monopoly, and the Cold War against the Soviets was still raging.

Ghostbusters and Purple Rain hadn't come out yet. Bill Clinton was still running Arkansas and Barack Obama was not yet running the Harvard Law Review. McCollum and Brown missed those things—and everything else since—unless they caught a snippet or two from a news clip on a rec room TV.

Why? Because they were browbeaten into falsely confessing to the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Even though there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime. Even though Roscoe Artis, a known sex offender, lived just a block from where Buie's body was found. The two confessed, they later said, because they thought that if they did so the police would let them go home. Both men are mentally disabled.

Thirty years later, DNA evidence uncovered by North Carolina's Innocence Inquiry Commission has cleared them—and identified the true perpetrator: Artis, who currently is serving time for a different rape and murder.

Virginia also has had its share of infamous exonerations.

Earl Washington Jr. escaped execution by just nine days. Thomas Haynesworth spent 27 years in prison for a series of rapes he did not commit. His case so upset former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli that Cuccinelli gave Haynesworth a job in his office and drafted legislation to make obtaining writs of innocence easier.

There are other cases, too: Jonathan Montgomery, locked up for four years on the basis of fabricated testimony. Bennett Barbour, who also spent four years in prison for somebody else's crime. Gary Diamond, who did five years. And more.

In fact, a study published in the journal of the National Academies of Sciences estimates that, with an error-at-trial rate of 4 percent, more than two-thirds of all the innocent people just on death row have yet to be exonerated.

Civil libertarians and liberals justifiably find this outrageous. Conservatives should, too. After all: For every innocent person sitting behind bars, there's a guilty perp walking around free, laughing his head off at the sap who took the fall for him—and the boneheads who made it happen.

What's more, the actually guilty party might be committing still more crimes. That amounts to a triple injustice: His original victim was denied justice, and so was the innocent man who went to prison in his place—and so are any later victims who would not have been victimized if the authorities had gotten the right guy.

Unfortunately, none of this seems to bother Virginia's political class much, because the commonwealth still sets some of the highest hurdles in the country for exonerating innocent people. Among them is the state's 21-day rule, which prohibits introducing new evidence of innocence more than three weeks after a conviction. Apparently many state lawmakers think it's better for the courts to do things fast than for them to get things right. Or maybe they just don't want to admit that sometimes government fouls up.

But why not? The conservative Republicans who dominate the General Assembly have no problem with that concept when they're talking about Obamacare, or economic policy, or business regulation, or environmental protection, or K-12 education, or any of a hundred other things. They of all people should agree that when the state uses its most tyrannical power—the power to lock people in cages for decades and sometimes even kill them—it's entirely appropriate to go back and make sure the government didn't blow it.

An Innocence Inquiry Commission could do that, and at very little cost: North Carolina's commission budget is about $350,000. That seems a small price to pay to make sure the state does not kill an innocent man while letting a killer go free.