After Further Review: A New Wave of INNOCENCE COMMISSIONS

Article excerpt

As the work of the Innocence Commission for Virginia demonstrates, innocence commissions are an important, useful tool for improving a state's criminal justice process.

Two years ago, in this journal, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld argued for the creation of state and federal "innocence commissions ... to review the causes of any officially acknowledged case of wrongful conviction." These commissions, Scheck and Neufeld said, should "recommend remedies to prevent such miscarriages of justice from happening again."1

Scheck and Neufeld are perhaps best known for their creation and stewardship of the Innocence Project, a clinical program that brings together lawyers, professors, university students, and investigators to examine potential cases of erroneous conviction. But concern for wrongful convictions is hardly limited to Scheck and Neufeld or others in the defense bar. Since 2000, several commentators and legal organizations have called for the creation of innocence commissions or boards of inquiry,2 many patterned after those in Canada3 and the United Kingdom.11 Today, no fewer than 12 states have instituted committees or commissioned studies to evaluate the fairness of their criminal justice processes5-particularly those that govern capital cases-of which four have been charged with investigating wrongful convictions.6 Among these, however, only the Illinois, North Carolina, and Virginia commissions have completed reports on the sources of erroneous convictions.

Recent commissions

In Illinois, the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment has been a bit of a hybrid, performing the functions of an innocence commission while focused primarily on problems in capital cases. The commission owes its inception to former Governor George Ryan, who established the body in 2000 out of concern that more individuals had been mistakenly sentenced to death in Illinois since 1973 than had actually been executed. Co-chaired by a former prosecutor and federal judge and by a former U.S. senator, the 14-member commission was charged with considering the state's system of capital punishment.

Although the Illinois Commission was not designed specifically as an innocence commission, its members conducted their own examination of the cases involving the 13 men released from death row. The result was a comprehensive report recommending 85 changes to Illinois' system of criminal justice and especially its investigation and prosecution of capital cases.7 In response to the commission's work, the Illinois General Assembly passed a reform bill in November 2003 that included more than 20 of the recommendations.8

In contrast to the Illinois Commission, which had a limited existence, the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission is an ongoing entity that examines issues connected with wrongful convictions. Moreover, unlike in Illinois, the North Carolina Commission has not investigated specific cases. The North Carolina body is largely the work of the state's chief justice, I. Beverly Lake, who in 2002 "invited key representatives from the criminal justice system and legal academic community to meet with him to discuss the issue of the wrongful conviction of the innocent."9

After that meeting, the chief justice recommended a working study commission, which now meets on an interim basis to "identify the most common causations of conviction of the innocent, both nationally and in North Carolina," and to "issue interim reports recommending solutions for each causation issue identified."10 In October 2003, the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission released its first report recommending measures to improve eyewitness identification procedures.11 Earlier this year, the commission's executive director, Christine Mumma, published a law review article discussing the work of the North Carolina Commission.12

Less is known about the Innocence Commission for Virginia (ICVA), which just now is completing a year's investigation into wrongful convictions in Virginia. …