“We took a lot of car trips to see inmates in prison and to interview witnesses, and all the while we’d talk about the justice system and how it needed to be improved,” says Montgomery-Blinn, who eventually became the Innocence Project’s student director. That early immersion shaped her approach to prosecution during four years as an assistant district attorney in Durham County, she says. Last spring, it helped her land her current job as executive director of the newly launched North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the nation’s first state agency devoted to the cause of innocence.
Montgomery-Blinn and her staff investigate plausible claims of actual innocence by individuals convicted of felonies in state courts. She then presents worthy claims to the eight commissioners — judges, prosecution and defense attorneys, and representatives from the law enforcement, legal, and broader communities — who decide whether the case should receive formal judicial review.
“We do not advocate,” she says. “We try to find out what the truth is about a crime and a conviction, in order to achieve justice.” Montgomery-Blinn and her staff — an investigator and office manager — will acknowledge fresh evidence of guilt as well, she says. “The cases that come to us involve an element of doubt and we aim to put that doubt to rest. If we can resolve it by establishing the innocence or guilt of the convicted person, justice has been done.”
They are committed to doing “whatever needs to be done” on a given case, she says. Subpoena power gives the commission the ability to make good on that promise. “Our statute gives us standing to go to court to get an order seeking documentation or compelling witnesses to testify. The student-run Innocence Projects do fabulous work, but sometimes hit brick walls in their cases. They’ll know there is information out there, but don’t have any standing to be granted access to it.” They also can’t take on cases that have been resolved by plea bargains, she adds. “There are a number of reasons an innocent person may plead guilty, and if new evidence surfaces we can look at it. So we really have a broad ability to investigate and hammer through those brick walls.”
Duke’s Innocence Project and those at other state law schools still have a key role to play in the commission’s work. Except for cases referred to the commission by victims, law-enforcement officials, prosecutors, and judges, all of which stay with Montgomery-Blinn for review and investigation, the nonprofit North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence undertakes initial screening of cases and, if warranted, assigns them to law students for review.
“They summarize what was known at trial, review the court records and assemble other documentation, outline the innocence issues, and make suggestions for following them up,” says Montgomery-Blinn. Having received more than 240 claims of innocence in the commission’s first six months of operation, she adds that the students’ assistance is essential.
It’s also great training, she maintains. “These students are our future prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. They need to become aware of these issues. I was a far better assistant district attorney for having been aware of them.” Serving justice and looking at innocence and serving justice and working in prosecution are two sides of the same coin, she observes. “You are just trying to get the truth.”
Work with the commission is a bit like a homecoming — and the best possible kind, Montgomery-Blinn says. “Being part of a neutral fact-finding agency, I don’t represent the defense or the prosecution. I represent justice. We’re like the guardian ad litem for criminal law. It doesn’t get any better!”