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North Carolina Breaks New Ground with 'Innocence Panel'

Let's suppose an American jury or judge has found you guilty of a serious crime. But you are in fact innocent. Too bad. To prison you go, to do the time with little chance to prove you really did not do the crime.

Your lawyer can file an appeal, but only by citing some procedural error in court that robbed you of a fair trial. The appeals judges don't want to hear your protestations of innocence. After all, a judge or jury of your peers has already weighed the evidence and found you guilty.

Once you're behind bars, belated DNA or other forensic evidence of your innocence occasionally surfaces, and there are mechanisms to get this evidence before a court. But this process can, and usually does, take two, three -- sometimes five or more years, which makes the news out of North Carolina quite remarkable. At the urging of a former state chief justice, the North Carolina legislature has passed, and the governor has signed, a bill creating what's called the "North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission." Its sole job will be to hear claims of innocence from imprisoned men and women.

The commission will have eight members, including a judge, a prosecutor, a sheriff, a defense lawyer, and a victims' advocate. Five of the eight must agree the convict is likely innocent for the case to advance to an appeals panel of three judges.

What's unique about this is that there's now an official government body whose sole job is to give convicts who profess their innocence a chance to make their case. Even those who originally pleaded guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence will eventually have a place to go to say, "No, despite what I said earlier, I am innocent of the crime.