Freedom fighters

Lawyers, paralegal and staff work together to free the innocent from prison

By Teri Saylor
The Daily Record Newswire

COLUMBIA, SC — Aschante Pretty has a job like no other in the entire United States.

 Pretty is the sole paralegal with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the only state agency in the country that searches for the truth in cases in which a prison inmate’s actual guilt is in question.

 On a daily basis, the commission receives dozens of letters from convicted men and women, many serving decades in prison for crimes they claim they did not commit. On a single cold, icy morning in February, Pretty had received 10 letters from claimants asking the commission to take their cases.

“The cases start with me and they end with me,” Pretty said from a small, windowless conference room in the North Carolina Judicial Center in west Raleigh.

When Pretty receives a letter from a prison inmate professing innocence, she reviews it to determine if the center should take the next step, which is to send the claimant a 21-page questionnaire about the case and a form to get consent to pursue the case. The claimant has 30 days to complete the questionnaire.

“If they miss their deadline, I send out a reminder, and when the questionnaire is returned, the case goes into initial review with a memo,”
Pretty said.

Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, the commission’s executive director, and Sharon Stellato, its associate director, review all completed questionnaires to determine whether or not the cases have merit to go forward. Many times cases are closed because they don’t meet certain criteria that would lead to further review.

The commission grew out of a study commission on actual innocence created in 2002 to look at issues in the criminal justice system leading to wrongful convictions based on misidentification, false confessions or informant testimony.

“One of the things we looked at was how the post-conviction process is not really designed for innocence claims,” said Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence, based in Durham.

Mumma served as director of the actual innocence study commission alongside former Chief Justice Beverly Lake, and together they led the movement to create the state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission. She is one of the architects of the 2006 legislation that established the commission, which has been evaluating post-conviction claims of factual innocence since it started operating in 2007.

The commission is made up of eight members appointed by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and the Chief Judge of the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The members include a superior court judge, a prosecuting attorney, a defense attorney, a victim’s advocate, a member of the general public, a sheriff and two members chosen at the discretion of the appointing judges.

Funded through taxpayer money and federal grants, the commission has eight employees who review all of the claims that cross their desks.
They conduct investigations that include examining evidence of the crime in question and reviewing court records, police reports and other materials related to the case. The staff also travels across the state and beyond, interviewing witnesses, co-defendants, victims and others associated with the case.

An office of equals
Pretty, 41, had been laid off from her job as an adjuster at a micro measurements company in Wendell. She enrolled at Wilson Community College, where she earned an associate’s degree in applied science in paralegal studies and worked at a Wilson law firm for four years before joining the Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2010.

“We are fortunate to have her,” said Stellato, 39, who had worked for the commission as an investigator before earning a law degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law in 2006. She also holds an associate’s degree in paralegal studies and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Because of the volume of work involved in investigating cases, Pretty, Stellato and other members of the commission’s small staff pitch in to do whatever it takes to find a resolution in a case.

“Everyone is equal in this office,” Stellato said. “There is no hierarchy. Everyone scans documents. Everyone goes out on investigations. Everyone completes paperwork.”

Over at the Center on Actual Innocence, a small staff of five also band together to work for the same mission to coordinate the review and investigation of innocence claims. Established in 2000, the center is a nonprofit organization funded through grants and private contributions. It was created to coordinate the efforts of the various law school innocence projects throughout the state.

Mumma’s team of young attorneys and office staff operate the same way as the commission’s staff, with everyone pitching in to review cases, file paperwork, conduct investigations, and work to free innocent people from prison.

While the Center on Actual Innocence must limit its investigations and examination of records to those that are available to the public, the Innocence Inquiry Commission, as a state agency, has the statutory authority to access any evidence and records that exist. The two organizations operate separately but often collaborate on cases.

Mumma, the center’s executive director, does not earn a salary and works entirely pro bono.

“Because funding is so limited, if I had a salary, I couldn’t hire my great staff to make it all happen and I couldn’t possibly do it on my own,” she said in the center’s small cluttered office condominium in Durham. The shelves house box after box of files on claimants. Some are moving through the innocence process. Others have been closed.

Mumma, 53, started her career in corporate finance before enrolling in the University of North Carolina School of Law, with her eye on the world of corporate law.

It was during a clerkship at the Court of Appeals that her attention turned to the plight of the innocent caught up in the justice system.

“I saw a couple of cases come through there and realized the limitations of the appellate process and realized the process is not set up for innocence,” she said. “I expressed my concerns with a previous law professor, Rich Rosen at the Carolina law school, who said he was getting the center started and asked me to come to work for them.”

An innocent man

So far in North Carolina, eight men have been exonerated through the efforts of the Center on Actual Innocence and the Innocence Inquiry Commission.

Greg Taylor, 52, of Durham is one of them.

Taylor was in his late 20s, with a good job, a wife, and a nine-year-old daughter when his life changed. On September 26, 1991 he was out late at night and got his truck stuck in a muddy ravine off a cul-de-sac in downtown Raleigh. He made his way home, and the next morning returned to the cul-de-sac to retrieve his truck where he found police investigating the murder of a woman named Jacquetta Thomas.

Taylor was arrested on suspicion of murder, tried, convicted, and in April 1993, he was sentenced to life in prison. He served 17 years before three judges empaneled by the Innocence Inquiry Commission exonerated him in February 2010. Governor Beverly Purdue pardoned him the following May.

He received compensation of $750,000 from the state and in 2013 settled a lawsuit he filed against the state for $4.625 million. Today, he works as a software developer, travels as much as possible, and spends time with his family, including his two grandchildren.

“I missed my daughter’s 10th birthday, and I missed her 16th birthday, and I missed her high school graduation, and I missed her college graduation, and I missed her wedding, and I missed the birth of my first grandson all for what?” he said while sitting in a north Raleigh Starbucks sipping on a cup of hot coffee. “Life is going on and you’re just saying, ‘why am I here?’”

Taylor’s brother learned about the Center on Actual Innocence and the Innocence Inquiry Commission and helped Taylor navigate the process of filing a claim in 2004 after he had been in prison 11 years.

Taylor remembers writing hundreds of letters over the years, and he remembers completing the Center’s long questionnaire, all the while focused on one goal – getting out of prison.

“I wrote so much, I had callouses on the bottom of my hand and just everywhere from writing letters all those years” he said. “And that form is just another one in a long line of pleas for help. And so by the time you are writing it, you are at the end of your rope, anyway. So that form was nothing more than something you sent in to somebody somewhere.”

For two years the Center on Actual Innocence investigated Taylor’s case before turning it over to the Innocence Inquiry Commission. Using its statutory authority to continue the investigation, the commission uncovered critical evidence that was not brought out in Taylor’s original trial.
Mumma was one of three attorneys who represented Taylor before the commission’s three-judge panel.

“I think this was the first time from the time I was arrested in 1991 I was actually heard in court,” Taylor said. “Chris made sure this was my day in court.”

Mumma also performed other small tasks for Taylor including washing and ironing his shirts every night during his hearing and transcribing notes he had written on small scraps of paper before he had access to a real notepad.

“The way she went about finding out everything I wanted [the judges] to hear was a process in itself,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s exoneration was a triumph, but for Mumma and her staff and for Pretty and Stellato, it was all in a day’s work.

Searching for the truth

In her role as a paralegal, Pretty spends long hours at a copy machine and scanner, making copies of any paperwork she receives, and returning the originals to the designated custodian of information.

And she documents everything.

“There is a database where everything goes, including the dates I send papers out and the dates I get them back,” she said. “I even document the location of case files, and who they are assigned to.”

Pretty, along with Stellato and other members of the commission staff, pair up to conduct investigations. They visit courthouses and prisons and interview law enforcement officers, witnesses, and family members of defendants and victims.

“I find it interesting going into prisons and taking depositions there,” Pretty said. “At first it was daunting, but now I’m used to it. I feel safer sometimes visiting inmates in prisons than going into individuals’ homes.”

Finding truth is not always neat and tidy, and it’s never easy. It takes years of investigating and no two cases are ever the same.
“We keep our eye on the prize,” Stellato said. “And that prize is the truth. It can never be about any one person. It has to be about all of