Navigating the Postconviction Innocence Process

If you or someone you know has been convicted of a felony in North Carolina, but are innocent of the crime, there are two avenues to pursue in the state court system to have your claim evaluated and potentially litigated: by filing a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) in Superior Court or by pursuing relief through the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission (Commission) process.  Before doing either, it is important that you consult an attorney.

In 2006, the Commission was established to investigate postconviction innocence claims that could not be adequately addressed through the traditional postconviction process.  The statute that governs the Commission process can be found here and provides an opportunity for judicial review of cases where evidence of innocence might otherwise be blocked from review because of procedural bars.  It also gives power to an independent State agency to look for evidence that has been declared lost or destroyed.  The Commission staff has been able to find evidence in numerous cases where law enforcement or prosecution stated that the very same evidence could not be located.  This power is critical because oftentimes analysis of physical evidence is the only avenue one can pursue to prove innocence.

It is extremely important to understand that the Commission is a State agency, and its staff, including the attorneys who work there, never represent or advocate for any defendant.  They are merely a fact-finding agency.  Additionally, the Commission does not consider any constitutional claims such as due process violations or ineffective assistance of counsel—it only looks at evidence of innocence.

If you are innocent of the crime for which you were convicted, or believe someone else is, you can contact the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.  We have been investigating innocence claims and advocating for innocent men and women in North Carolina for 17 years.  We will evaluate your claim to determine the likelihood of obtaining relief in your case.  If you have a credible claim, we will help you determine whether filing an MAR or applying with the Commission is your best option.  If it is determined that your claim is best suited for the Commission, we can guide you through the process and be there to answer any questions you have along the way.

Cheryl Sullivan is the Senior Staff Attorney at the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.  The Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit located in Durham, North Carolina that identifies, investigates and litigates credible claims of innocence, obtaining justice for people imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, for the victims of those crimes, and for the actual perpetrators.

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An Historic Effort and Righteous Results

When a post comes across the [email] listserv announcing a case-related win of any kind, it feels good to every criminal defense lawyer who is swinging the battle ax day in and day out.  We celebrate with congratulatory replies and if we see that winning attorney in court we high five her.  A win for one is a win for all, and the shared revelry helps each of us keep up the fight.

Over the past several years, many criminal defense section members have quietly secured big wins for federal inmates who were sent to prison during the War of Drugs from the 1980s to the 2000s.  That War, as we all now know, is uniquely responsible for our current reality of mass incarceration.  Former President Obama announced an unprecedented clemency initiative in 2014, focusing on those convicted of drug-related crimes who received crushing mandatory-minimum sentences.

In response to Obama’s initiative, several national bar associations organized and created the nationwide Clemency Project in 2014.  The American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Federal and Community Public Defenders and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) all took part in the project.  NCAJ is an affiliate of NACDL.

Calling America a “nation of second chances,” Obama commuted a total of 1,715 sentences by the time he left office.  NCAJ Criminal Defense section members Raymond Tarlton and Elliot Abrams, with the help of the Office of the Federal Public Defender in the Eastern District, successfully reduced the sentences of 6 people.

In one of Abrams’ cases, his client, Tony Taylor, had been sentenced to life in prison for a crack cocaine possession conviction.  Obama’s commutation reduced the sentence to 293 months.  While still an oppressive sentence, Taylor will see freedom in another 10 years.  “I never thought I’d get to see my daughter as a free man; now I will,” Taylor told Abrams.

Section member Jamie Lau, the supervising attorney at Duke’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic, took on several cases so that law students could assist in the clemency initiative.  One heart-swelling success was the case of James Burns, who in 2005 was sentenced to 235 months in prison for selling small amounts of crack cocaine.  Burns headed to federal prison with a release date of 2024.  He was a model prisoner, well-liked by fellow inmates and prison staff.  When his clemency petition was granted, Burns’ prison case manager told Lau that “Mr. Obama has picked himself a deserving one.”  Burns new release date is March 4, 2017.

Dozens of section members worked on petitions for clemency, many of which were not granted.  Even in the cases not granted, however, our members connected with federal inmates and established a relationship that showed, quite simply, that those behind bars are not forgotten.  While not a “win” in the traditional sense, a much-needed extension of compassion still provided hope and emotional sustenance for both the inmate and the attorney who reviewed the case.

The Clemency Project is now closed, but represented the best of what we can be as lawyers:  a diverse group of volunteers from the nation’s bar who together screened the cases of more than 36,000 federal prisoners who asked for assistance.  In total, the Project submitted 2,600 petitions, 705 which were granted.  Obama reinvigorated clemency, and our section members were a part of an extraordinary coalition who embraced Obama’s initiative that yielded results worth celebrating.

 Sonya Pfeiffer, VP of Membership and Chair of the NCAJ Criminal Defense Section, is a partner at Rudolf Widenhouse www.RudolfWidenhouse.com.  

Workers’ Compensation and Personal Injury – What is the Difference and Why Should I Care?

A workers’ compensation claim and a personal injury case are completely different things. If you have been injured it is important to understand which kind of case you have, or if maybe you have both, and the differences between the two.

Is the injury related to your job?

A worker who is injured on the job in NC may have a workers’ compensation claim. The injury must come from an accident that happens in the “course and scope” of the work. Not all workplace injuries are covered by workers’ compensation in North Carolina. Workers who develop an occupational disease in North Carolina may be covered by workers’ compensation if their employment put them at risk for the condition. The point is that to have a workers’ compensation case in NC the injury or medical condition must be related to your employment.

Personal injury cases on the other hand can happen anywhere and do not need to be related to your employment. Typical examples of personal injury cases include automobile accidents, slip and falls, and professional malpractice.

Was somebody else at fault?

With workers’ compensation, it does not matter who was at fault in causing the injury. An injured worker does not have to prove that the employer was at fault. In fact, an injured worker can receive workers’ compensation benefits in North Carolina even if the worker accidentally causes the injury. In workers’ compensation, fault does not matter as to whether the claim is valid or not.

In a personal injury claim the injured person must show that the person who caused the injury was “negligent.” Negligence means the breach of a legal duty of care resulting in an injury and damages. In other words, negligence is hurting someone because you are not being careful enough. (Although my law school torts professor would have disapproved of that definition.) In a personal injury case in North Carolina, if the injured person is partly at fault in causing the injury, his or her claim may be barred. This is called “contributory negligence.” In North Carolina, an injured person who contributes even 1% to his or her own injury may not be able to recover at all.

Who do you file your claim against?

If you are injured on the job in North Carolina, you should file your workers’ compensation claim against your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance company or workers’ compensation administrator. This claim will be handled by the North Carolina Industrial Commission. With very few exceptions you cannot file a lawsuit for a workplace injury against your employer in civil court, even if you were injured because of your employer’s carelessness. Again, in workers’ compensation cases fault does not matter. Your only option is to take your claim to the Industrial Commission. This is known as the “exclusive remedy” provision. The exclusive remedy rule also applies if you are hurt at work because of the carelessness of a co-worker. Again, you must file the claim with the Industrial Commission.

Deciding who to recover from in a personal injury claim is a little more complicated. You can seek to recover from the person or people whose lack of care caused your injuries. If you are injured in an automobile accident that is someone else’s fault, and that person was driving a vehicle owned by a family member, you may be able to recover from the vehicle owner. If the person who injured you was acting as an employee of a company you can also seek to recover against that company.

Where, when and how do you file your claim?

If you are injured on the job you must file your North Carolina workers’ compensation claim with the North Carolina Industrial Commission. In most cases, you must file your claim within two years. You should also give notice right away to your employer. The Industrial Commission is a government agency responsible for administering workers’ comp claims in North Carolina. The Industrial Commission decides disputes between injured workers and their employer’s workers’ compensation insurance company, including whether an injury or occupational disease is covered by workers’ comp, what medical treatment should be provided, and what wage replacement benefits are owed. The Industrial Commission also reviews all workers’ compensation settlements in North Carolina.

If you are injured because of someone’s carelessness and have a personal injury claim, you can file a lawsuit in civil court. In most cases, you have three years from the date of the injury to file your lawsuit, but there are many exceptions to this rule. Most claims can be filed in the county where you live or where one of the people you are suing lives. Your lawsuit, call a “complaint,” must be filed with the Clerk of Court and must be delivered to or “served” on each defendant. A judge will make decisions about who should be involved in the lawsuit, what evidence can be used, and when the case will be heard. You have the right to have your damages decided by a jury in a personal injury case.

What can you recover?

Workers’ compensation in North Carolina provides two benefits, medical treatment paid for by workers’ compensation for the injured body part, and workers’ compensation disability payments. Workers’ compensation does not pay pain and suffering or other types of damages.

If you have a personal injury case you may be able to recover a much broader range of damages, including past and future medical expenses and wage loss, as well as for pain and suffering.

Can you have both a workers’ compensation case and a personal injury claim?

If you are injured on the job through the carelessness of someone who is not an employer or co-worker, you may have both a workers’ compensation claim and a personal injury claim. You can and should pursue both. An example would be if you were injured in an automobile accident while on the job in North Carolina. The workers’ compensation insurance company may be able to recover money it pays on the workers’ compensation claim from the personal injury case so the cases must be carefully coordinated.

 

Kevin Bunn is a North Carolina workers’ compensation lawyer. He has practiced law in Cary, North Carolina, since 1993. Kevin is a Board Certified Expert in North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Law, a member of the North Carolina Industrial Commission’s Advisory Council, a past Chair of the NCAJ Workers’ Compensation Section, and serves on the NCAJ Board of Governors. For more information about Kevin and his law practice please visit ncworkercomp.com.