The toughest person in the state’s criminal justice system isn’t with the defense or the prosecution. Christine Mumma is with the truth, and she has spent a decade fighting to strengthen protection for the innocent.

Serendipity, fate, the hand of God — whatever you want to call it — brought Christine Mumma ’85 to this table in this courtroom on this day, holding Greg Taylor’s hand, waiting to hear if he finally would be freed after 17 years of wrongful incarceration for murder. Mumma, the executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, wasn’t new to those forces. As she saw it, serendipity had introduced her to her husband, Mitch Mumma; fate had steered her to leave a corporate finance job to go to law school; and no doubt it was the power of whatever you want to call faith that would get her through the next six minutes.

Greg Taylor had known luck, too, but it was of a darker kind, one that had swept the former drug addict away from his wife and his 9-year-old daughter in 1991.That was when police arrested him for the murder of Jacquetta Thomas after he showed up near the crime scene in Southeast Raleigh to retrieve his truck, which had been stuck in the mud the night before.

Two years later, when he was sentenced to life in prison for killing Thomas — a prostitute with whom the prosecution posited that he had quarreled over sex — he learned the meaning of “wrong place, wrong time.” For the better part of the next two decades,Taylor’s family would spend more than $140,000 in efforts to prove his innocence, only to watch all of his legal avenues expire, all of his access to the traditional courts close. His marriage ended. His daughter’s life went on — graduations, a wedding, a son — while his life seemed permanently stalled.

He had nothing left to save him from his incorrect reality. He had only this: A woman who believed in his cause, who put her good fortune to work for those with worse, expecting and asking for no money in return. A woman who fought to create the groundbreaking N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission that allowed his case back into this special court, where three judges would have to unanimously agree, after hearing evidence, that he had not committed the crime. That he was innocent.

Taylor held Mumma’s hand, and their heads met in a prayerful bow at the desk.While they waited for Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ’65 to read the court’s finding — minutes that seemed almost as long as the six years Mumma had worked to free Taylor — Mumma became more convinced they had lost, while Taylor simply prayed that his heart would not give out. They waited together for a moment that had never before happened in the history of the judicial system, neither of them daring to believe.

As fate would have it

Greg Taylor’s long struggle toward freedom began with the truck that got stuck in the mud when he and his friend Johnny Beck drove it into the woods to smoke crack on Sept. 26, 1991. But the road to his redemption stretches back farther and heads northward, to a little girl in New Jersey who had a penchant for bringing home abandoned cats and who, at an early age, had a boyfriend who came from an abusive home. Her parents tell people that Christine Cecchetti, the fourth of their five children, was born with a “take-people-under- my-wing instinct.”

Her father was a chemical engineer who worked for Exxon, moving the family to the next gig (Libya was one) the way career military officers might. The day after Christine graduated from high school in New Hanover, N.J., her parents bade her goodbye and moved to Saudi Arabia, where her father ran the largest gas plant in the world for the next decade. Mumma headed south to live with a sister, who was finishing up her studies at Duke.

While Mumma was establishing residency so she could attend Carolina — “I had to put myself through school,” working 30 hours a week during college; “I needed to afford it” — she rekindled a fledgling romance with Mitch Mumma, a Duke student with whom she’d been on a blind date the previous year when each was visiting siblings in Durham. They soon began dating and were married five years later.

She was “driven, self-starting, compassionate — all of those things that come out in what she does today,” said Mitch, who attributed her initiative to being an “oil brat.”“I was drawn to her for all of those reasons.And she has an independent mind.”

That independence came to the forefront when Mumma was 33 and an executive in financial planning and analysis at Nortel. Despite a career on the rise and children aged 1, 4 and 6, she resigned after nine years to go to law school.

The choice came with plenty of challenges. As her husband traveled constantly for his work, Mumma carted her three kids to class at Carolina’s law school whenever babysitters fell through, which was frequently. Her children attended so often, coloring books mingling with law tomes, that Professor Rich Rosen wrote their names into his contract law exam. (To honor those challenges, the Mummas later established The Mumma Scholarship for Single Parents at the law school, an endowed award that assists true one-earner households.)

She intended to reboot as a corporate lawyer, but her past exposure to the legal world hinted otherwise. Long intrigued by the law, it was her experience while serving as a juror on a capital murder trial in 1988 that left her with a negative first impression of the criminal justice system. It wasn’t the guilty verdict she objected to; she firmly believed the defendant had committed the crime. Still, she felt there was inequality inherent in the disorganized, disheveled defense attorney squaring off against a prepared, powerful and neat-as-a-pin prosecutor in the case, and the memories were strong enough to inspire her to write a retrospective on the trial for an independent study during her third year of law school.

Her interest in criminal justice solidified when Mumma clerked for N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake after graduating in 1998. Working after hours, she began to study a number of inmate cases in which innocence seemed possible, even probable — and yet, no system existed to prove it. The post-conviction process is set up for appeals of constitutional rights violations: the prosecution withholding evidence, for example, or proof of a racially inequitable jury — so-called technicalities that could result in a retrial.

“But innocence itself is not an appealable issue,” Mumma said. “Those cases aren’t up there for the judges to determine if the jury got it right or not. And that was really troubling.”

A broken system

Mumma, who had received numerous offers from the corporate world, didn’t need money — Mitch Mumma had by then built Durham-based Intersouth Partners into a venture capital success story. What she wanted, said Rosen, “was to be useful.”

Rosen pointed her in the direction of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence in 2001, an organization that he and two Duke professors had formed the previous year to consolidate Duke’s and UNC’s law schools’ Innocence Projects — part of a consortium of initiatives nationwide dealing with innocence claims.

The nonprofit investigates inmate cases that have exhausted appeals in the courts, screening claims from prisoners and determining which to take on, with help from student teams at one of the seven state law schools that now participate.

Working pro bono then as she does today, Mumma hit the ground running — and digging. Her husband likened her to Sandra Bullock’s character in “The Blind Side.”

“I worry about her all the time, driving around in her little convertible, literally dumpster-diving for beer bottles to get DNA samples in the most godforsaken places,” he said. “Or she just pulls up in some unsafe neighborhood and doesn’t think twice, just starts asking questions. She has a little bit too much chutzpah for my liking sometimes.”

But Mumma needed that all-out attitude to plug the holes she kept noticing in the state’s criminal justice system. Dwayne Dail, who received a life sentence for the1988 rape of a 12-year-old Goldsboro girl, was exonerated after 18 years in prison in 2007 only after Mumma and her staff made one more call to find DNA evidence that they had been told repeatedly since 2001 had been destroyed.

Dail had never stopped professing his innocence and had refused to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge, which would have released him on three years’ probation. Instead, he chose to face year after year behind bars, away from his family and son, enduring the kind of jailhouse torture reserved for someone convicted of child rape. Something told her that wasn’t the choice a guilty man, a dishonorable man, would make.

Mumma says she has developed a “motherly intuition” about who is innocent and who is not; she believes she can sometimes tell within minutes of meeting a prisoner whether he is telling the truth. But the avenues for proving innocence shouldn’t be dependent upon a sixth sense or some mystical force.

“The seven DNA exoneration cases that have happened in this state were not the product of an efficient criminal justice system. They happened by chance, or as a result of attorneys who didn’t give up on their clients. So if those cases are about serendipity, luck, hand of God, whatever you want to call it, that’s not something for a criminal justice system to be proud of.”

system. They happened by chance, or as a result of attorneys who didn’t give up on their clients. So if those cases are about serendipity, luck, hand of God, whatever you want to call it, that’s not something for a criminal justice system to be proud of.”

In 2002, long before Dail’s exoneration, Mumma started pelting her old boss Chief Justice Lake with not-so-subtle hints that he should convene a committee to study the mistakes. She was armed with powerful statistics: 75 percent of wrongful convictions occurred as the result of misidentification; false confessions were the cause of the other 25 percent — both problems that could be tackled with reforms that would prevent wrongful conviction at the front end. Lake agreed.

“She brought it to my attention very forcefully,” Lake told an audience at Campbell law school in April.“It was mentioned the other day that I received a nudge in the direction of forming the N.C.Actual Innocence Commission; well, believe me, it was more than a nudge. Chris Mumma is very, very persuasive.”

Lake made Mumma executive director of that study commission, which convened after Lake wrote letters to 30 people from every corner of the justice system, including judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, police and State Bureau of Investigation agents, victims’ advocates and law professors, asking for their voluntary service on the group. They would meet every six weeks.

Lake recalled that, at the first meeting, all the prosecutors sat on one side of the room and all the defense lawyers sat on the other. Mumma said the mingling always was begrudging.

“I would watch them go and move their name tents, because they were sitting with someone they didn’t want to sit with,” she recalled.“So it was hard work just to keep that relationship developing throughout.”

The relationship developed important reforms, however, including recommendations to employ double-blind criminal IDs, in which witnesses are shown mug shots individually by an administrator who does not know who the suspect is; and the videotaping of interrogations in all murder cases. North Carolina is the only state in the country where both practices are governed by statutory law.

That the varied parties even committed to the process, much less agreed on reforms that made it to the N.C. General Assembly, was in part the result of both Lake’s and Mumma’s political registration: Both are tough-on-crime Republicans who, logic might dictate, would not prioritize setting an inmate free.

“Clearly one of the things that Chris and Justice Lake did was that they moved the innocence movement beyond the stake of ideology,” said Rosen, a former public defender who served on the commission and called it “remarkable.”

“Lake is probably the premier conservative voice in the state,” Rosen said, “and he changed the playing ground for that when he said: Innocent people who are convicted are victims.And if you’re concerned about victims, you should be concerned about them.”

Most groundbreaking, however, was the piece of legislation that Mumma drafted as a result of the meetings: the creation of an Innocence Inquiry Commission, an eight-member group represented by all walks of life in the criminal justice system that would examine cases of factual innocence brought to it and recommend strong cases to be heard by a special three-judge panel that could find an inmate innocent by unanimous decision. Not just “not guilty,” but innocent.

would examine cases of factual innocence brought to it and recommend strong cases to be heard by a special three-judge panel that could find an inmate innocent by unanimous decision. Not just “not guilty,” but innocent.

The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission would become the only state-run agency in the country that investigates claims of innocence, and it would have powers that other post-conviction relief avenues did not, including full access to all investigative documents and lab reports and the ability to examine all evidence, whether previously submitted during a trial or other post-conviction motion.

Without that legislation, which passed in 2006, without the inquiry commission and the subsequent hearing, Greg Taylor would still be in prison. Instead, in February, he became the first person to be found innocent by a court in the history of the country’s criminal justice system.

‘Now get out of my way’

One member of the chief justice’s commission who did not support the creation of the Innocence Inquiry Commission was Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby ’73, setting up a clash with Mumma that would continue through the Greg Taylor proceedings before the special three-judge panel.

Mumma had sparred with DAs before. She’d butted heads with many people in the criminal justice system while fighting for the people in whom she believed; because if she was right, it meant that somewhere along the way, the district attorneys had been wrong. And now — as in the Taylor case — they would have to find and prosecute the real criminal.

Mitch Mumma recalled a case early in Christine’s career with the Center on Actual Innocence, when the district attorney involved made her a blunt bargain: My guy is in jail, he told her. Bring me the guy who did it, and I’ll let your guy out.

“That was the first time I realized that not everybody in the criminal justice system believes that having innocent people behind bars is a problem,” he said.

Mandy Hitchcock ’98, and an ’07 graduate of UNC’s law school, worked on Taylor’s case as a student through UNC’s Innocence Project and then during a year spent as Mumma’s extern at the center. She said Mumma was exactly the sort of person to deal with those kinds of road blocks.

“She is doggedly persistent in everything she does,” said Hitchcock, who now works in the federal public defender’s office in Washington, D.C. “There are so many people who will throw every possible obstacle your way in this work.The police, the prosecutors, anybody. They don’t want to look bad.And you just have to have the kind of persistence to say, ‘I know what I’m doing is right, and what you’re doing is wrong. Now get out of my way.’ ”

Mumma has questioned Willoughby’s actions during Greg Taylor’s hearing, during which Taylor’s attorneys, Joe Cheshire ’70, Mike Klinkosum ’92 and Mumma, dismantled the state’s evidence. Among the handful of revelations poking holes in the case: An SBI officer revealed that a lab report completed 17 years ago, which showed that a substance found in Taylor’s truck was not blood, had not been released at the original trial. The agent’s report showed only the finding of an initial test that said, inconclusively, that it might be blood.The report had been a key piece of evidence in his 1993 conviction.

Still, in Willoughby’s closing arguments, he maintained that nothing produced at the hearing had supported Taylor’s innocence. (Willoughby did not respond to an interview request for this article.)

“Greg’s case has been particularly hard because it was not a DNA exoneration, and the DA’s office was fighting very hard to keep Greg in,” Mumma said. “So it is more of a loss to them. But it didn’t have to be. It shouldn’t have been. I really believed that after they saw the evidence that we had, that on that last day, Colon Willoughby would stand up and say,‘We join the defense in the motion for release.’ And that would have made him look really good.”

Easier said than done, Rosen said. “Everybody should be interested in innocence,” he said.“But when we step outside our role in the adversarial system, it’s sometimes very difficult.We all have our turfs. And there are certainly times when not everybody is happy with what Chris does.”

Mumma gets that. But her message never wavers, and it’s pretty simple: Even one innocent person behind bars is too many.

“You have prosecutors who want to protect their convictions; you have defense attorneys who might even want to protect the plea offer they got,” she said. “Sometimes the truth gets lost. And this process is about finding it.”

The battles never stop

Mumma averaged less than three hours sleep per night in the months before Taylor’s hearing, working every night and every weekend — her habitual 3 a.m. sojourns to the office off her bedroom seemed easy during his long road to freedom. She had devoted so much time to Taylor that, after his release, her 16-year-old daughter, Madison, made photocopies of Taylor’s face and replaced all the pictures of herself in their home with his likeness.

If Madison Mumma thought Taylor was joining the family, she wasn’t far off; when Dwayne Dail was exonerated, he depended upon the Mummas so much that Mitch still refers to him as their fourth child. “[Christine and Dail] are still, today, on the phone all the time,” he said.

Relearning how to be free is not easy, and for Mumma, letting an exoneree go through that process alone is unconscionable.

“It’s not like a normal defense attorney, where, after the case is over, you box it up and you’re done,” she said. “For 17 years, Greg was told: This is when you wake up, this is when you go to bed; this is when you eat, and this is what you’re eating. And now, he opens the refrigerator, he looks, and then he closes it. He can’t make decisions. He can’t sit at home by himself; he gets depressed. So he ends up coming with me a lot, even just to meetings.”

In the months following Taylor’s exoneration, his struggles were many, and as a result, so were Mumma’s. An unresolved DWI charge from 1991 meant that he could not apply for a driver’s license until he took alcohol education classes — despite the uncommon fact that he spent nearly two decades in prison without a single infraction of any kind.

In March, the Raleigh Police Department decided to test Taylor’s clothes from the night of the murder. The move was curious: Taylor had filed several motions while incarcerated asking that the items be tested to help prove his innocence; all had been denied. And he could not be charged again for the crime, even if the lab had found Thomas’ DNA on his items.

The RPD — which confirmed in May that the tests showed Taylor’s innocence, clearing the way for a pardon from Gov. Beverly Perdue and the up to $750,000 in compensation due to Taylor from the state — said it had only wanted to test all evidence as it reopened the case to find the real killer.

Mumma believes the department had other motives.

“It’s creating a public perception [that he is still guilty], and it’s mostly about their egos,” she said. “What else could it be? When you’re found innocent, and then you are still being pursued as a suspect, it’s difficult to move on to the next stage of your life.”

For now, the future for Mumma — who, in addition to Dail and Taylor, helped exonerate Joseph Abbitt in late 2009 — lies in the 97 open cases at the center; the 15 names on her office wall whom she “believes 100 percent” are innocent but can do nothing about because of lost evidence or other roadblocks; and the one thing she says she cannot do until every innocent person in jail is free: relax.

“I worry that I’ve forgotten how not to work,” Mumma said. “And maybe I never knew.”

Mitch would like his wife to find an “exit strategy” from the center, to eventually leave it in capable hands and detach from the weighty emotions it requires — although part of him fears she’ll want another go at politics if she does. (She ran, unsuccessfully, for N.C. Senate in 2004 in a heavily Democratic district.)

“I don’t know that she’s rescuable,” Mitch said. “I can’t pull her back. She collects people in need.”

That is something for which Greg Taylor is infinitely grateful.

“Seventeen years ago, my trial lawyer told me he was too busy working in his yard to go over the closing argument with me that he was going to deliver in my case,” Taylor said.“ And then there is Christine, who came to see me every day in my Wake County jail cell. She sat on my bunk and went over everything that happened that day. Who got the better results?”

Taylor, who has spent a great deal of time speaking before students at law schools, said he feels a responsibility to Lake, to Mumma and to everyone like him, still waiting for serendipity — or a bull-headed oil brat from New Jersey — to free them.

These days, he sounds a lot like Mumma herself.

“If my story could help change one person’s life for the better, wonderful,” Taylor said. “If it could change more, if it could help to change the system, even better. The bottom line is, everybody should have the same purpose: to convict the guilty. And ultimately, that has to do with the truth. So we have to do what we can to get to the truth.

“Why should anybody be afraid of that?”

The issues raised in Taylor’s case prompted a review of the SBI’s handling of forensic evidence that showed SBI analysts had withheld or distorted evidence in more than 200 cases. Follow the story at newsobserver.com.

BETH MCNICHOL ’95 is a freelance writer and former associate editor of the Review.

Copyright 2010 UNC General Alumni Association

From the September/October 2010 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review. Awarded a CASE Silver Medal for Best Articles of the Year.