Friday, February 19, 2010

Lake: Innocence process "most important thing I've done'

A regular attendee of the special session of Wake Superior Court over the past two weeks has been former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Bev Lake, whose 2002 decision to set up a study commission on how to handle claims of innocence by convicted inmates led to the General Assembly's creation of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission. It also led to the adversarial process by which convicted murderer Greg Taylor proved to three Superior Court judges that he was innocent of the crime -- not just not guilty, but innocent.

Moments after Judge Howdy Manning read the decision of the unanimous panel, I asked Lake what the decision said about N.C. justice. "I've always said that we have the best system in the world," Lake said, "but it's not perfect."

Lake, now retired, has had an interesting career -- serving as a deputy attorney general in the state Department of Justice, as a Wake County state senator (update: A Democrat, Perry Woods reminds me, not a Republican back in those days), as a Republican candidate for governor in 1980 (unsuccessful, against Gov. Jim Hunt), as a Superior Court judge, as an associate justice of the Supreme Court and then as chief justice. Among other things, he wrote an important decision requiring the state to refund $1.2 billion in intangible taxes the court ruled the state unconstitutionally collected.

Where, I asked, did he rank creation of the innocence process in his long career? Lake thought for a moment and said, "All said and done, this is probably the most important thing I've done."

Lake, of course, did not create the process adopted by the legislature. That took a lot of work from Democrats as well as Republicans in the General Assembly who hashed out how it would work. Credit is also due to such folks as Chris Mumma, who has directed the nonprofit N.C. Center on Actual Innocence for years, as well as members of the study commission that examined the issue. But without the credibility that Lake gave the movement back in 2002 when he asked for a study, the process might never have become law -- and Greg Taylor would still be behind bars.


Anonymous said...

I've known Bev Lake (hmmmm... BEV Lake..BEV Perdue.. hmmm) for 40 years. Conservative to the core (inherited from his father, the ORIGINAL I. Beverly Lake), but a fundamentally honest man of integrity and firm conviction.

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