Criminal cases in the United States follow the legal principle of presumption of innocence. This means that they follow a high burden of proof that considers an individual innocent until they are proven guilty. Unfortunately, there are circumstances where the criminal justice system has allowed innocent individuals to be incarcerated for crimes that they did not commit based on faulty “proof”. The damage resulting from a wrongful conviction can be devastating, with some individuals having been incarcerated for 25 years or more due to incorrect evidence or testimony.
While nothing can be done to recover the time you or a loved one has lost due to a wrongful conviction and incarceration, a lawsuit can be a tool to hold those involved, intentionally or otherwise, accountable. It can also serve to protect others from facing the same problem and provide some financial compensation for those who were wronged. Wrongful conviction lawsuits are complicated, so it is critical that you hire an experienced civil rights attorney when filing a lawsuit for wrongful conviction. The attorneys at Tarlton Polk Law have built a successful civil rights and criminal defense practice representing the innocent at all stages of the legal defense process from pre-trial to post-conviction.
Have you or a loved one been wrongfully convicted of a crime? Don’t hesitate to contact our experienced civil rights attorneys. We will do everything we can to hold the state accountable for violating your rights and taking away your freedom.
Causes of Wrongful Convictions
Wrongful convictions can have many different causes and contribution factors, including issues with technology and people, and cases involving negligent or mishandled evidence or judgement to the intentional miscarriage of justice by law enforcement and prosecutors. Some causes of wrongful convictions include:
- Eyewitness Misidentification: This typically occurs when a witness misidentifies a suspect as the perpetrator of a crime, when they actually saw somebody else.
- Misapplication of Forensics: This occurs when the scientific evidence that was used in a conviction was unreliable or invalid. This can apply to poor DNA evidence, expert testimonies, and the analysis of crime scenes. For example, microscopic hair analysis can produce false matches, or analysis of an arson scene could show signs that were once believed to indicate intent but have been proven to also be caused by accidental fires.
- False or Coerced Confession: This occurs when a defendant is manipulated and coerced into confessing to a crime they did not commit. Many of these cases occur in psychologically coercive police interrogations.
- DNA Preservation Violations: Every state has a post-conviction DNA statute that requires DNA used as evidence in criminal cases are preserved so that can be accessed again in an appeal. When these statutes are violated, it can be much harder to appeal a conviction because the evidence used against the accused is no longer available.
- Mishandled Evidence: For evidence to be admissible in court, it must be provable to be what the prosecutor says it is, and could not have been altered, forged, or otherwise abused. There are cases where this still happens because the defense fail to amount due diligence to question the evidence presented by prosecution or law enforcement.
- Jailhouse Informants: Prosecution can turn to individuals in prison who may be related to the case to ask for their testimony in exchange for a benefit, such as leniency for their own sentence. Without proper regulation, these testimonies are often abused, as informants give coerced false testimonies.
- Inadequate Defense: While it is your constitutional right to have legal counsel to defend you against charges, that right does not guarantee a good lawyer. Court appointed attorneys can be notoriously overworked and sometimes even incompetent, especially when it comes to trials and appeals. When they fail to properly investigate or prepare for a case, their defendants are put at great risk of a wrongful conviction.
- Police Misconduct: law enforcement misconduct that can lead to wrongful convictions is a category of its own, including much of the above such as police giving false testimonies, mishandling evidence, coercing witnesses and suspects, and even planting false evidence.
Relief for Wrongful Conviction
Wrongful Conviction lawsuits and settlements are not the same thing as appealing convictions, one must have their convictions vacated or thrown out before seeking compensation for the conviction. Getting a conviction vacated can happen through investigations by:
- Private attorneys, court-appointed post-conviction lawyers or non-profit innocence projects: They can file a motion for appropriate relief, investigate new evidence that could change the case outcome, as well as seek new trials to set-aside the convictions.
- North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission (NCIIC): Established by the state’s general assembly in 2006, this commission evaluates post-conviction claims of innocence. This is a neutral fact-finding state agency that investigates cases and the evidence but does not represent individuals legally.
- Investigation by both private attorneys, or court-appointed attorneys and the NCIIC.
Investigating Wrongful Convictions
Investigation into wrongful convictions requires meticulous work by experienced lawyers who can investigate all the details. There are a variety of factors that can support the claims brough in a wrongful incarceration lawsuit, so a diligent lawyer would seek to find out as much as possible about your case, including:
- Are all the defendants and key witnesses still available?
- What do witnesses remember about the case?
- Are court transcripts, recordings, reports and other documents or evidence still available/exist?
- Was evidence mishandled or not properly preserved (e.g. DNA evidence not being preserved post-conviction)?
- Can an NCIIC investigation or parallel Industrial Commission case help a civil rights lawsuit?
Finding the facts about the case and what pieces are missing that can support your wrongful conviction claim is crucial, which is why our attorneys have exceptional attention to detail when evaluating these cases and can collaborate with expert witnesses as needed.
Compensation for Wrongful Conviction
After having a conviction vacated or thrown out, a wrongfully incarcerated person can seek some compensation. This can be from the state in the form of money or support for employment or education, or through civil rights lawsuits against individuals or courts who are responsible for the wrongful conviction.
In North Carolina, you can file wrongful convictions claims with the North Carolina Industrial Commission. In North Carolina for compensation. You can be awarded:
- up to $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment, up until a total maximum $750,000; and
- a year of job skilled training; and/or
- Tuition fees for any NC community college or institution within the University of North Carolina system.
Per the North Carolina General Statute Section 148-82, people who have been wrongfully incarcerated and have received a pardon or been declared innocent post-conviction may be eligible to file claims for statutory compensation within 5 years of the pardon or dismissal. Whether you receive compensation from the state or not, you may also bring a civil rights law suit in state or federal court.
Civil Rights Lawsuits
You can additionally file a civil rights lawsuit for more compensation, often far more than what was awarded by the state. Lawsuits can be filed under 42 USC Sec. 1983 in federal court or in state court for civil rights violations and related common law tort claims. These claims can include:
- Arrest without probably cause (under the 4th amendment)
- Violations of due process rights (under the 5th and 14th amendments)
- Common law tort claims for false arrest or false imprisonment
- Malicious prosecution
- Intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress
Cases vary in compensation, but some notable ones in North Carolina include:
- Dwayne Allen Dail: convicted in 1989 of rape and released in 2007 when DNA was found and tested. Settled with the City of Goldsboro for $7.5 million.
- Joseph Sledge: convicted of double homicide in 1978 and released in 2015 after DNA testing. He reached a $4 million settlement with Bladen county and was awarded another $750,000 from the state.
- Floyd Brown: charged with murder in 1993, a judge ruled that he was incompetent due to his mental disability, so he was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for 14 years. His charges were dismissed in 2007 and he was placed in a group home, but was later rewarded $4.5 million for wrongful incarceration.
- Alan Gell: wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder in 1998 and sentenced to death. He served 9 years as an inmate on death row before being freed from jail in 2004 and exonerated. He was awarded $3.9 million for wrongful conviction and years spent on death row.
- Timothy Bridges: Served 25 years for rape and burglary he didn’t commit due to wrong testimony from a FBI-trained hair analyst. His charges were dismissed in 2016, and in 2017 he was awarded $9.5 million from the city of Charlotte and $750,000 in state compensation.
- Willy Grimes: Convicted of rape and kidnapping in 1988, he spent 24 years in prison until getting exonerated and released in 2012. He won a lawsuit with the city of Hickory for $3.25 million.