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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