Hiring Effective Counsel Is the First Step
Earlier this year, a man who was wrongly convicted of a crime in 1993 was released. Greg Taylor served almost 17 years in a North Carolina prison for the murder of a prostitute in 1991. A panel of judges recently overturned his guilty verdict after they were presented with “clear and convincing evidence” that his conviction was supported by inaccurate evidence and questionable witness accounts. Since Taylor could not find new information to prove his innocence while in jail, he found help with a unique state agency.
Greg Taylor owes his newfound freedom to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission (IIC). Established by the state legislature, the IIC is the only commission of its kind in the U.S. that is specifically charged with examining claims of innocence. Taylor was the first person liberated because of IIC efforts since the agency’s inception in 2006. While the commission’s work is laudatory, it leads to the question: How can we work to make our criminal justice system more effective at the front end to ensure that innocent people are not convicted in the first place?
WHEN JUSTICE FAILS
To ensure alleged criminals receive fair trials, they must exercise their right to counsel. While the Constitution does not define the type of attorney to which a person is entitled, the lawyer should be effective and competent. When the innocent are convicted of crimes or the guilty receive overly severe, unjust sentences, among the potential causes is representation by ineffective or incompetent counsel.
Some states – including North Carolina -designate qualified attorneys as specialists in their fields. Hiring a specialized criminal defense attorney means you are hiring someone with years of experience and proven acumen to handle criminal cases. It means that the North Carolina State Bar has conducted a thorough review of the attorney’s record and has established that he/she has demonstrated skill, experience and ability in handling many criminal matters.
ATTORNEYS THAT PREVAIL
Justice was eventually served in Greg Taylor’s case, but it came at a price. If Taylor’s defense attorneys had discovered the exonerating information at the time of his trial, he would not have lost so many years of his life. Although time cannot be turned back for Greg Taylor, his case serves as a lesson for accused criminals in North Carolina today: It is crucial that those facing criminal charges hire attorneys who have the necessary experience and ability, and who will work hard to advocate for their innocence when it counts.
Two characteristics generally separate effective and competent criminal legal counsel – knowledge and experience. A criminal defense attorney should understand the laws relating to your crime and the rules and procedures that apply when defending a criminal case, whether in state or federal court. Taking this knowledge further, a lawyer should have direct experience with trying a variety of criminal cases, whether simple misdemeanors or felonies like murder, theft, fraud or drug trafficking.
CRIMINAL LAW SPECIALISTS
The North Carolina State Bar Board of Legal Specialization certifies competent counsel as specialists in particular areas of law. The board has operated since 1985. And the designation of “specialist” is not just a label. It can help those in need of legal assistance to distinguish the lawyers with the knowledge and experience to practice a specific body of law, from those without the necessary experience to handle a complicated and high-stakes criminal case. It also provides attorneys with a way to showcase their expertise and validate their experience.
The board uses objective criteria to certify attorney specialists in areas like criminal law. The requirements include licensure and an ethical practice record in North Carolina, major participation in criminal law for a period of at least five years, and an acceptable score on a criminal law test. Lawyers must also have earned a minimum amount of continuing legal education credits by attending criminal law conferences, and they are subject to a peer review by other criminal law attorneys before they qualify for this specialty. Specialized counsel must renew their certification every five years, so consumers can be sure of their continuing proficiency as experts in criminal law.
KNOW WHO TO CALL
When someone has been charged with a crime, a serious and intimidating legal process awaits him or her. Everyone deserves to receive help from a legal professional who knows how to expertly navigate the criminal justice system.