Innocence Commissions and the Future of Post-Conviction Review

86 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2010 Last revised: 11 Nov 2014

See all articles by David Wolitz

David Wolitz

University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law

Date Written: April 20, 2010


In the fall of 2006, North Carolina became the first state to establish an innocence commission – a state institution with the power to review and investigate individual post-conviction claims of actual innocence. And on February 17, 2010, after spending seventeen years in prison for a murder he did not commit, Greg Taylor became the first person exonerated through the innocence commission process. This article argues that the innocence commission model pioneered by North Carolina has proven itself to be a major institutional improvement over conventional post-conviction review. The article explains why existing court-based procedures are inadequate to address collateral claims of actual innocence and why innocence commissions, due to their independent investigatory powers, are better suited to reviewing such claims. While critics on the Right claim that additional review mechanisms are unnecessary or too costly, and critics on the Left continue to push for a court-based right to innocence review, the commission model offers a compromise that fairly balances the values of both finality and accuracy in the criminal justice system. At the same time, I argue, the North Carolina commission suffers from the tension – inherent in all expert agencies – between efficiency and discretion, on the one hand, and procedural fairness and accountability, on the other. I offer several suggestions for reform of commission procedures to help insure that none of these values is overwhelmed by the others. Overall, the record of the North Carolina commission demonstrates that the commission approach can provide justice where the traditional court system has failed, and, with the reforms I suggest here, it ought to be a model for states across the country.

Keywords: collateral review, innocence, finality

JEL Classification: K14, K40, K42

Suggested Citation

Wolitz, David, Innocence Commissions and the Future of Post-Conviction Review (April 20, 2010). Arizona Law Review, Vol. 52, p. 1027, 2010, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 10-22, University of Tennessee Legal Studies Research Paper No. 165, Available at SSRN: or

David Wolitz (Contact Author)

University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law ( email )

4200 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20003
United States

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