Alumna’s Work Helps Exonerate Two Men After Decade in Prison

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Lindsey Guice Smith '08

Justice doesn’t always mean putting the bad guys behind bars. Sometimes it means setting the good guys free. Ever since Lindsey Guice Smith ’08 was old enough to think about what she wanted to be when she grew up, she set her mind on becoming a prosecutor. Yet there she was, standing outside the Buncombe County, N.C., jail on a September afternoon, against a backdrop of mountain foliage, waiting to celebrate two convicted felons walking out as free men after 10 years in prison.

An investigation Guice Smith and a colleague at the Innocence Inquiry Commission (IIC) conducted over 15 months resulted in a hearing that sent the case before a three-judge panel. After listening to seven days of testimony, the panel exonerated Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson of the second-degree murder charges to which they’d pleaded guilty a decade earlier.

The release of the two men was only the second time that a three-judge panel had reversed a conviction since the Innocence Inquiry Commission began in August 2006.

“The commission has received over a thousand claims,” Guice Smith says. “We’ve had four cases that were presented to our commission, and only three of those were sent forward for review by a three-judge panel.”

The case was the first given to Guice Smith and Jamie Lau to investigate after the IIC hired them in January 2010 on a federal grant from the Department of Justice for post-conviction DNA testing assistance. She and Lau collected evidence from law enforcement agencies, drafted legal motions and hit the road, traveling two or three days a week for months to interview about 50 people involved in the case, including Kagonyera and Wilcoxson. The investigation took them to Texas, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

“Our commission is a neutral state agency,” she says. “We’re not looking just for innocence; we’re looking for the truth, whatever that may be.”

That objectivity can be difficult to maintain, says Holly Bryan ’01, a counselor at the law school’s career development office, where Guice Smith worked as a student. Bryan, once legal affairs counsel with the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers, lobbied for the creation of the IIC. “Lindsey is always rational and open-minded,” Bryan says. “That’s one reason she does so well at her job. She takes in all the pieces and works out the puzzle and sees what comes of it.”

In April 2011, Guice Smith and Lau presented their findings to the commission. The burden of proof was set particularly high because both men had originally pleaded guilty to avoid a death sentence. All eight commissioners needed to agree to move the case forward to the three-judge panel. And they did.

Guice Smith grew up in Brevard, N.C., not far from Asheville, where her father was a state probation and parole officer. She received her undergraduate degree from Elon University before enrolling at Carolina Law. She is the only lawyer in her family. During her final year at Carolina, she had an externship at the IIC but found it frustrating to “work on things from the back end,” she says. “I always had a desire to prevent problems before they got to this point. One of the reasons I wanted to be a prosecutor was because prosecutors have the ability to make a difference in our justice system. They play a really important role in making sure we get it right.”

But she graduated from law school into a state hiring freeze, and there were few district attorney’s office openings. The IIC, familiar with her work ethic and abilities, was happy to bring her back on board. The position has given her the opportunity early in her career to investigate cases start to finish.

The IIC work also forced Guice Smith to experience the world in a different way, Bryan says. Guice Smith had always identified with the prosecutorial side of a case, and to be treated with some hostility by law enforcement officials who viewed her as trying to set guilty people free came as a shock.

Often people enter law school with the idea that they will be either a prosecutor or a defense attorney, or negotiating on one side of the table or the other, Bryan says. Guice Smith’s work is an example that “there are so many other things you can do as a lawyer,” Bryan says.

“She’s putting to use everything she learned at the law school,” Bryan says. “Our office tries really hard to get people to think outside of what they’ve always thought a lawyer should do. She’s not doing work you traditionally think a lawyer would do, but she’s doing some of the most important work you can do.”

The day after Kagonyera and Wilcoxson returned home, Guice Smith went back to work, back to the large stack of cases piled on her desk, starting from the beginning with each one, not knowing where it will lead.

-November 14, 2011

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