Intake and Investigation Process
NCIP has developed a four-stage process to screen and investigate the hundreds of inquiries we receive each year: (1) screen the initial request, (2) conduct a preliminary investigation, (3) conduct a full case investigation, and (4) litigate to resolve the matter.
Stage 1 – Screening the initial request
When NCIP receives an inmate request for assistance, the request is logged in NCIP’s case management database and sent to NCIP’s case manager for initial screening and review. Depending on whether the claim meets NCIP’s case criteria, the case manager will either: (1) send the inmate a questionnaire requesting additional case information and copies of relevant documents, (2) refer the case to a more appropriate outside program/lawyer, or (3) reject the case. NCIP rejects approximately 60% of the requests for assistance at this initial stage of review either because actual innocence cannot be demonstrated or the request fails to meet NCIP’s case criteria.
Stage 2 – Preliminary investigation by case management team
Once an inmate returns a questionnaire, a case file is created and an intensive secondary screening is conducted. The NCIP case manager, NCIP staff attorneys and a rotating group of law student research assistants and volunteers make up the Case Management Team (CMT). They seek to locate case documents, meet with prior lawyers, investigators, law enforcement personnel, laboratories and witnesses. The team also identifies issues that have already been fully litigated, and which may affect judicial consideration of a new claim. When a substantial amount of case information has been gathered, the case manager presents the facts of the case and the gathered information to NCIP’s Case Screening Committee. The Case Screening Committee will either: (1) place the case in NCIP’s queue to await attorney assignment for full investigation, or (2) reject and close the case. If the CMT discovers new evidence of innocence that can be acted on immediately, the case is immediately assigned to an attorney for full investigation. NCIP rejects about 15% of the cases at this stage.
Stage 3 – Full investigation by legal team
When a case is assigned for full investigation, the NCIP attorney works with law clinic students to create and implement an investigation plan. At any point in this process, the case may be rejected and closed. Otherwise, the team proceeds with the investigation to develop evidence necessary to support a claim of innocence. When biological material is found and there is potential for DNA testing, NCIP seeks to have the evidence tested, by agreement or if necessary, through litigation. Most of NCIP’s cases involve eyewitness error, official misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, false confessions, faulty forensic evidence, or a combination of these factors. Even those cases with potential for DNA testing involve a complexity of other factors resulting in possible wrongful convictions. NCIP investigates and litigates cases that involve a wide range of forensic issues including fire science, shaken baby syndrome, child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome, hair and fingerprint analysis, as well as DNA.
Stage 4 – Litigation
Where NCIP is sure there is a wrongful conviction, we try to work with the DA’s office to secure agreement to release the innocent person. Where discussion and negotiation fail, NCIP initiates litigation, typically beginning with a petition for writ of habeas corpus that asks the court to overturn the conviction and provides the factual and legal basis for the request. These petitions are usually based on claims of newly discovered evidence such as DNA test results or other forensic analyses, new witnesses, confessions from the true perpetrators, or credible recantations from previous witnesses. In cases based on newly discovered evidence of DNA test results, litigation is often required to obtain DNA testing, before a writ can be filed.
When possible, NCIP collaborates with law firms on a pro bono basis to assist with investigation and litigation.