Chris Mumma, of Durham. Dwayne Dail’s personal Independence Day is August 28, the day in 2007 he was released from prison where he had been incarcerated for 19 years – half his life – for a crime he did not commit. He owes his freedom to Chris Mumma, a woman who had no ties to his case except her belief that he was innocent and her determination to see that justice prevailed. Mumma occupies a unique place in North Carolina and the United States: an early advocate for innocent people who are in prison and for bringing about legislation and other reforms that will help prevent other innocent people from ever being incarcerated. Her determination to see that innocent people are released from prison has its roots in a 1988 capital case on which she was a juror. She never got over the stark contrast in the attorneys. The defense attorney appeared disorganized and sweated profusely while the prosecutor’s appearance and demeanor were just the opposite.
Once a successful corporate executive, Mumma decided to pursue her longtime interest in law, even though she had three small children. In her third year of law school, she wrote a ten-year analysis of the case for which she was a juror. After graduation, her second clerkship was with the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, I. Beverly Lake, well known as a staunch conservative. Eventually, she shared her concerns about that 1988 case, and together they became pioneers in actual innocence work.
Through Mumma’s dogged persistence and Lake’s influence, the General Assembly established the North Carolina Commission on Actual Innocence to identify the causes leading to wrongful conviction. Mumma served as executive director of the study commission and now leads the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. North Carolina is the only state to have an actual innocence commission, a truth-seeking state agency to investigate inmates’ claims of innocence. For Mumma, her innocence work is far more than a job. It is a passion, day and night, seven days a week. In her purse, she carries a list of incarcerated people she believes are innocent. She has two offices, both stacked with active case files. Without thinking twice, she will drive half way across the state to pursue critical information. In Dwayne Dail’s case, she never gave up, even after 12 unsuccessful attempts to have a crucial piece of evidence retested. On the thirteenth try, the piece of evidence was finally tested; the rest is history – his Independence Day.
For all of her work, she receives no salary. Her reward is seeing innocent people released and bringing about reforms that will keep others out of prison. In addition to case work, Mumma, with former Chief Justice Lake, has been able to convince legislators to pass reforms dealing with photo line-up procedures, videotaping, and evidence preservation procedures. Against considerable odds, she has built strong bipartisan support, again making North Carolina a leader in these reforms. Through the work of the actual innocence commission, all seven law North Carolina schools have programs in which students can volunteer to work on cases and gain a better understanding of the system and how mistakes can occur. She regularly meets with groups of law students so that when they are defense attorneys, prosecutors, or judges, they will be less likely to send innocent people to prison. Doggedly determined, Mumma also diplomatically reaches out to groups that formerly were inclined to dismiss actual innocence work. She is a frequent lecturer at professional organizations and this fall spoke to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Even though she engages a wide variety of groups in actual innocence work and gives much deserved credit to Lake for his support and leadership, Mumma is the lynchpin – the one who lies awake at night thinking about people who are in prison but shouldn’t be.