If North Carolina wrongfully convicted you of a felony you did not commit, and you spent years in prison, I think it’s fair to say you would want to be compensated. Recognizing this, North Carolina currently has a system in place where wrongfully convicted individuals can petition the Industrial Commission for compensation of $50,000 per year, up to $750,000. Questions over if this is a sufficient amount for losing potentially decades of one’s life aside, it is incredibly difficult to even receive this money. 

Dontae Sharpe was in this exact situation in 2019. On July 17, 1995, Sharpe was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison even though he was later found to be innocent. Finally, after years of legal battles, on Aug. 22, 2019, Judge G. Bryan Collins Jr. of the Pitt County Superior Court vacated his conviction, and Sharpe was finally released after 24 years.

However, in 2019, Sharpe was not eligible for compensation. In fact, he had to wait two years for the governor’s office to issue him a pardon after his conviction had already been vacated before he would be eligible to petition for that compensation. 

Under North Carolina General Statutes Chapter 148 Article 8, entitled “Compensation to Persons Erroneously Convicted of Felonies,” the requirements to even petition the Industrial Commission are that a person either “be granted a pardon of innocence by the Governor upon the grounds that the crime with which the person was charged either was not committed at all or was not committed by that person,” or be “determined to be innocent of all charges and against whom the charges are dismissed pursuant to G.S. 15A‑1469.” 

The second pathway references the Innocence Inquiry Commission, which is “a neutral, Fact-Finding State Agency charged with Investigating Post-Conviction Claims of Innocence.” Established in 2006, its inquiries have led to only 15 exonerations since then. However there have been at least 76 individuals exonerated in North Carolina since 1989, with the rate of dismissals increasing over time; nearly half occurred in the last decade.

For someone exonerated through more traditional pathways, like a judge vacating their sentence, that leaves the pardon of innocence from the Governor’s Clemency Office. However, this system has been under fire for being slow, confusing, and, at times, requiring political pressure to actually get the ball rolling. 

This system is inadequate to address the injustices caused by wrongful convictions. At the very least, judges should be able to issue a certificate of innocence when they vacate a conviction if they see fit to allow the exonerated party to petition for compensation.

Making restitution dependent on the governor’s office leaves a very important feature of judicial accountability to the whims of a political executive. There is no telling when or why the Clemency Office may deny or accept a pardon application. The process of being compensated for losing decades of one’s life should not be secretive; it should be streamlined.

Of course, oversight is still necessary. The Industrial Commission administers various compensation programs, such as the Workers’ Compensation Act, the Tort Claims Act, the Childhood Vaccine-Related Injury Act, the Public Safety Employees’ Death Benefits Act, and the Eugenics Compensation Program, alongside the Act to Compensate Individuals Erroneously Convicted of Felonies. Asking them to determine if any exonerated individual is deserving of compensation would similarly be unreasonable.

However, if we believe judges can oversee trials that sentence people to life in prison or death and can sit on the Innocence Inquiry Commission, then they can be trusted to issue Certificates of Innocence for the Industrial Commission to at least consider.

This would be a minor change to our statutes — altering the eligibility requirements to petition for compensation and authorizing judges to issue these certificates — affecting only the middle of the long chain from conviction to exoneration to petition to receiving compensation. However, this little change would make our justice system more fair for all, especially for those who were wrongfully convicted.