A change in North Carolina’s compensation law stipulates that an exonerated defendant who entered a guilty plea must first be pardoned by the governor in order to receive compensation. Twenty-eight of the 292 DNA exonerees plead guilty.
The bill, which has been signed by the governor is a big change from the current law that allows the wrongfully convicted to receive $50,000 a year for each year behind bars regardless of whether they plead guilty, reported the Citizen-Times.
According to the new bill, Robert Wilcoxson, who was exonerated by DNA evidence in September for the 2000 murder of a North Carolina man, would not have been able to collect the $545,591 he was awarded earlier this year. Wilcoxson and Kenneth Kagonyera, who was also released and exonerated, plead guilty to second-degree murder at the advice of their attorneys who said they could receive life in prison or face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder.
The change could also affect three other men who plead guilty to various charges in the same case and have innocence claims before the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry.
Asheville attorney Brad Searson, who represents one of the three men, said the new law is short-sighted and unfair.
“I think it’s an example of legislation that has moved too quickly and without appropriate deliberation,” he said. “And I believe it’s inconsistent with what most North Carolinians would believe is a fair and just way to treat people that have endured extraordinary harm because of errors in our judicial system.”
Searson’s client, Larry Williams, was a minor when he was interrogated and, like Wilcoxson and Kagonyera, he testified that he submitted a guilty plea because he could have received a life sentence if he didn’t.
Searson said the case is a good example of why compensation shouldn’t be ruled out just because a defendant pleaded guilty.
“Larry Williams, a 16-year-old boy who is subjected to coercion that results in a plea that is in no way valid, should be entitled to relief,” he said.
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