Innocence Commissions and the Future of Post-Conviction Review

In 2006, North Carolina became the first state to establish an innocence commission—a state institution with the power to review and investigate individual post-conviction claims of actual innocence. And on February 17, 2010, after spending seventeen years in prison for a murder he did not commit, Greg Taylor became the first person exonerated through the innocence commission process. This Article argues that the innocence commission model pioneered by North Carolina has proven itself to be a major institutional improvement over conventional post-conviction review. Existing court-based procedures are inadequate to address collateral claims of actual innocence, and innocence commissions, with their independent investigatory powers, are better suited to review such claims. While critics on the Right claim that additional review mechanisms are unnecessary or too costly, and critics on the Left continue to push for a court-based right to innocence review, the commission model offers a compromise that fairly balances the values of both finality and accuracy in the criminal justice system. At the same time, the North Carolina commission suffers from the tension—inherent in all expert agencies—between efficiency and discretion, on the one hand, and procedural fairness and accountability, on the other. I offer several suggestions for procedural reform to help achieve a balance between these competing values. Overall, the record of the North Carolina commission demonstrates that the commission approach can provide justice where the traditional court system has failed, and, with the reforms I suggest here, can be a model for states across the country.