By Ned Barnett
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - A three-judge panel in Asheville, North Carolina ruled on Thursday that two men who spent a decade in prison after confessing to a murder charge are innocent of the crime and should be immediately released.
The judges ruled after hearing witnesses' testimony and reviewing the facts that led to the convictions of Kenneth Kagonyera, 31, and his co-defendant Robert Wilcoxson, 32.
The two men had maintained their innocence despite their guilty pleas. They said they agreed to plead guilty to second degree murder to avoid being sentenced to the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
Chris Fialko, a Charlotte attorney who represented Wilcoxson, walked his client out of the Buncombe County jail about 4 p.m. Thursday.
"It was a remarkable thing to watch him give a big hug to his daughter who was born two months after his arrest. He had never been able to hug her before," Fialko told Reuters.
Kagonyera was also released Thursday.
Ken Rose, an attorney with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a non-profit law firm in Durham, North Carolina, said the exonerations demonstrate how the threat of the death penalty can lead to wrongful convictions.
Rose said the exonerations were especially notable a day after a popular outcry failed to stop the execution of Georgia inmate Troy Davis. Davis was executed despite a campaign to have his conviction reviewed after multiple witnesses recanted their testimony against him.
"The events in the last couple of days raise again the question of whether the death penalty is bad policy leading to wrongful convictions and the executions of innocent people," Rose said.
The convictions of Kagonyera and Wilcoxson were brought before the judicial panel by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency that reviews inmates' claims of innocence.
The Commission, the first of its kind in the nation, was created by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2006 and began operating in 2007. In 2010 Gregory Taylor became the first person to be exonerated after the commission reviewed his case and sent it to a three-judge panel.
Taylor was cleared after serving 17 years for a murder that he did not commit. A person exonerated by the process is declared innocent and cannot be retried for the same crime.
Kagonyera and Wilcoxson were convicted of the shotgun killing of Walter Bowman, 51, in Fairview, North Carolina. Bowman died after three men wearing bandanas and gloves burst into his home on September 18, 2000 and one shot him in the abdomen.
Police believed that the home invasion was planned as a robbery because Bowman's son was a drug dealer, according to a commission summary of the case. DNA tests of bandanas found near the scene showed no link to Kagonyera and Wilcoxson.
In 2003, Robert Rutherford, a federal prisoner on unrelated charges, admitted to participating in the home invasion with two other men who were not Kagonyera and Wilcoxson. The commission found no evidence that any action was taken in response to the confession.
On March 30, 2007, the DNA profile obtained from the bandana was connected to man who was named in Rutherford's confession and an early Crime Stoppers tip, but was not arrested.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)