Many concerned about high number of N.C. exonerations

Many concerned about high number of N.C. exonerations
March 23
05:00 2017

By Cash Michaels

For The Chronicle

“Twenty years I’ve been trying to prove my innocence [of murder] … I didn’t do it. I wasn’t there. I can’t explain why people say what they did or why they lied. Only God can.”

The late Darryl Hunt, exonerated of murder in 2004, after over 19 years in prison.

It was just over a year ago, March 13, 2016, when Darryl Hunt, 51, the innocent man Winston-Salem held deepest in its heart, was found dead in a pickup truck.

After being exonerated 13 years earlier for a murder it took almost 20 years to prove he didn’t commit, Hunt, who was reportedly dying of cancer, and frustrated with the struggles he encountered after being released from prison, took his own life, police say.

Those who knew Hunt say had he lived, had he continued to advocate for those falsely locked behind prison walls like he once was, he would have found no surprise in a recent report by the National Registry of Exonerations that showed in 2016, North Carolina had the fifth highest number of prison exonerations in the nation at eight (the state has had 36 exonerations since 1943).

And of those eight, six of them were for African-Americans.

“It is hard to stem the tide of racism that leads to such unjust actions like the incarceration inequality … until we come to terms with our ‘shame’ as a nation,” says the Rev. Stephen McCutchan, retired pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church in the city, who also served as chairman of the board of the nonprofit Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice Inc. “Our shame causes us to become defensive and seek to justify our mistreatment of others who are different from us.”

“Darryl, by his lack of bitterness from having been horribly mistreated and misjudged, and his devotion to assisting other prisoners as they tried to transition out of prison, gave us a model of good emerging from evil,” Rev. McCutchan continued. “Unfortunately many saw him as both Black and Muslim, and couldn’t listen to the freedom of God [that spoke] through him.”

The Hunt case fueled the movement in North Carolina years ago that put the state’s criminal justice system under even greater scrutiny than ever before, creating the environment that spawned the Innocence Commission, and the Racial Justice Act in 2009 (before a Republican-led legislature repealed in 2013).

But civil rights attorney Irving Joyner, chair of the N.C. NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee, says the numbers show that more must be done now.

“For decades, many North Carolina’s prosecutors have used illegal means to obtain convictions against people who were innocent, poor and defenseless. The statistics show that most of these innocent victims were African-Americans who did not have the resources to challenge their prosecutions and were prohibited by North Carolina law from obtaining vital information, prior to trial, which would have assisted in their defense of tainted charges and, as a result, defendants had to encounter “trials by ambush,” Joyner, who also teaches at the North Carolina Central University  School of Law in Durham, says.

“African-Americans, who were not able to afford competent legal counsel, were the predominant victims of this process because they were unable to properly defend themselves. In recent years, this illegal process was reformed and allowed for discovery of the prosecutors’ records, which documented these abuses and misconduct, and thus allowed illegally convicted individuals to test the illegally used evidence in court.”

Attorney Joyner continued, “The use of these reformed procedures produced evidence to support claims of misconduct by several prosecutors, and African- Americans were the primary beneficiaries. To this day, the prosecutors who were responsible for these abuses have never been punished, which encourages prosecutors to continue to conduct prosecutions in illegal, unconstitutional and unethical manners. As a result, there is a need for additional reforms in order to insure that African-Americans and others will be fully protected by our constitutions and laws.”

“Our criminal justice system is broken,” says the Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP, which is demanding the release of Dontae Sharpe of Greenville, whom they say was falsely convicted of a 1994 murder. “We need serious reform because incarceration of innocent people is criminal.  If we are fifth highest in the nation, this begs the question how many others are innocent but incarcerated.

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Cash Michaels

Cash Michaels

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