Why Do Wrongful Convictions Happen?
Wrongful convictions have many causes and contributing factors. These may include, among others:
- Mistaken Identity
- Misapplication of forensics
- False or coerced confessions
- Government misconduct
- DNA preservation violations
- Mishandled evidence
- Withholding evidence
- Missing or destroyed evidence
- Police and prosecutorial abuse
Civil Lawsuits Over Wrongful Incarceration in N.C.
After an exoneration, a wrongfully incarcerated person may be able to seek compensation by pursuing:
- Statutory compensation awarded by the state of North Carolina for claims filed with the N.C. Industrial Commission per North Carolina Gen. Stat. Section 148-82; and / or
- Civil rights lawsuits against various defendants in state or federal court, including past or current law enforcement, SBI agents, officials with authority over custody of evidence, the estates of any deceased eligible defendant, and the local agencies / government for whom they worked.
Per North Carolina Gen. Stat. Section 148-82, individuals wrongfully incarcerated for a felony offense in a jail or state prison who have received a pardon or been declared innocent post-conviction may be eligible to file claims with the Industrial Commission within 5 years of pardon or dismissal. These claims offer the opportunity to obtain compensation from the state.
Whether an exonerated individual receives compensation from the state or not, he or she may also bring civil lawsuits in state or federal court. These civil claims are separate matters from claims filed with the NC Industrial Commission, and compensation is provided through available insurance policies of at-fault parties, such as defendant law enforcement, Cities, and Counties.
Discovery: Investigating Wrongful Convictions
Information unearthed in investigations can support claims brought in a civil wrongful incarceration lawsuit, and help determine:
- Whether all defendants and key witnesses are still available;
- What defendants / witnesses remember about the case (i.e. interrogatories, depositions);
- Whether court transcripts, interview recordings, SBI reports, and other documentation exist;
- If a case involved evidence mishandling or wrongful conduct in procuring a conviction;
- Whether physical evidence was contaminated / improperly stored;
- How NCIIC investigations or parallel Industrial Commission case may help a civil claim;
Discovery can be crucial to finding facts and evidence that may have been missed, concealed, or improperly handled in initial cases. Out attorneys devote meticulous care to our investigations, and collaborate with relevant expert witnesses, including:
- DNA experts who can testify about the reliability of evidence and testing;
- Experts on evidence handling / storage;
- Experts who can speak to the evidence required of a Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR), such as former Superior Court judges;
- Experts who can help calculate and testify to a plaintiffs’ damages (i.e. did the plaintiff suffer special damage in prison?).
What Are the Civil Causes of Action for Wrongful Conviction?
Civil claims for wrongful incarceration may allege:
- Violations of Due Process Rights (Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments)
- Violations of state constitutional rights
N.C.G.S. Sec. 15A-268 (duty to preserve biological evidence)
- For defendants sentenced to death or life, evidence must be preserved until their death
- For defendants convicted of any homicide, sex offense, assault, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, or arson as a Class B-E felony, evidence must be preserved for the period of incarceration and mandatory supervised released.
- False arrest / imprisonment
- Malicious prosecution
- Intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress
- Negligence and intentional conduct (Sheriff’s bonds claims)
How Much Compensation Does a Person Get for Being Wrongfully Convicted?
In North Carolina, state compensation for wrongful incarceration is statutorily set at:
- Up to $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment, with a total maximum of $750,000;
- A year of job skills training; and / or
- Tuition and fees for any NC community college or institution within the University of North Carolina.
Depending on the circumstances, civil lawsuits filed against defendants may provide additional compensation - often for more than what is awarded by the state. While every case is different, notable examples in North Carolina include:
- Darryl Hunt, convicted of murder in 1990 and pardoned in 2003, reached a $1.6M settlement with the City of Winston-Salem, and was awarded $358,545 from North Carolina
- Dwayne Dail, convicted in 1989 for rape and released in 2007 when DNA was found and tested, settled with the City of Goldsboro for $7.5M.
- Joseph Sledge, convicted of double homicide 1978 and released in 2015 after DNA testing, reached a $4M settlement with Bladen County, and was awarded $750,000 from the state.
How Can Wrongfully Convicted Seek Relief?
In order to file any civil claim for compensation, wrongfully convicted individuals must first be exonerated. This may happen through:
- Motions for Appropriate Relief (N.C. Gen. State Section 15A-1411) filed by private attorneys or innocence projects (i.e. N.C. Center of Actual Innocence) who investigate new evidence that would have changed the outcome of a case, and seek new trials, consent from the D.A. or A.G., or set-aside convictions.
- Investigations by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission (NCIIC), an independent state agency;or
- Investigations by both private attorneys and the NCIIC.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission Is a neutral fact-finding stage agency based in Raleigh. It focuses on finding the truth, and does not represent individuals. The NCIIC evaluates claims of factual innocence, and has authority to subpoena witnesses, take custody of evidence, order DNA testing, and search law enforcement for lost or missing evidence.
NCIIC investigations may be forwarded for hearings before an 8-member Commission, which votes to send the case to a panel of three Superior Court judges. Three-judge panel hearings determine whether convictions should be set aside. The panel’s decision must be unanimous.
Eligibility for state compensation is determined by whether exoneration was obtained through Motions for Appropriate Relief or a set-aside conviction:
- If convictions are set aside, the wrongfully convicted person is automatically pardoned and entitled to compensation from the state for wrongful incarceration.
- In cases where defendants are granted Motions for Appropriate Relief (MAR), there is no automatic pardon or compensation from the state
At Edwards Kirby, our team does not handle matters of exoneration / false imprisonment in criminal courts. However, we often work with private criminal counsel, innocence projects, or NCIIC investigators involved in criminal proceedings as we build a client’s civil case.
Call (919) 335-7005 or contact us online to speak with a North Carolina wrongful incarceration lawyer. Consultations are free and confidential.