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Christine Mumma - Tar Heel of the Year: The director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence works to free those who are wrongly convicted -- and...
[December 30, 2007]

Christine Mumma - Tar Heel of the Year: The director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence works to free those who are wrongly convicted -- and...

(News & Observer, The (Raleigh, NC) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Dec. 30--A legal file folder tucked under her arm, Christine Mumma hops out of her Lexus SUV and surveys the Boone trailer park. She steps from the pavement onto browning grass, her high heels sinking into the dirt. She starts rapping on doors.

"I'm here investigating a murder," she tells residents. The 1994 case was resolved in the courts long ago. But the well-dressed woman who has come knocking says there is a problem: the man in prison for the crime is innocent.

Correcting such cases consumes Mumma, a lawyer and director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence. She knows that almost all people sent to prison are guilty. But when she thinks police and prosecutors got it wrong, she works tirelessly to set it right.

"There is a need," Mumma said, "and I'm driven to be where there is a need. ... It's in my blood."

She spent six years trying to liberate Dwayne Dail, wrongly imprisoned for raping a child. He walked out of a Goldsboro courtroom in August, free after nearly 19 years.

Mumma, 45, is not a famous lawyer, but she is a force behind what has become a high-profile movement -- the effort to reverse and prevent wrongful convictions.

Since leaving the corporate fast track for a career in pro bono legal work, Mumma has pushed to establish laws to ensure that there will be fewer cases like Dwayne Dail's.

"There have been many prominent people who have strengthened the system," said former state Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr., for whom Mumma clerked in the late 1990s. "Chris has gone beyond that, being innovative and willing to look at the process objectively and being willing to change it."

Mumma helped design guidelines for police lineups that, if followed, should prevent the kinds of missteps that led to wrongful arrests in the Duke lacrosse case. Also due to Mumma's work, North Carolina is one of only nine states that require investigators to record interrogations of murder suspects. And soon, a state law Mumma drafted will ensure that biological evidence is safely retained long after a suspect is convicted. Had evidence in Dail's case been readily available for DNA testing, he wouldn't have spent half his life in prison.

The changes in laws and procedures have drawn national attention to North Carolina, now recognized as a pace-setter for criminal justice reform. Mumma often travels the country to show others how to minimize wrongful convictions.

'She bothers to care'

Mumma (pronounced MOO-ma) is an unlikely crusader. She is a Republican mother of three who lives in a $4 million Durham home with her husband, Mitch Mumma, who has made a fortune in venture capital. Yet she works long days in her office, over the phone in her car and most weekends at home on behalf of people branded murderers, robbers and rapists. She does it all for free.

"The starkest thing about her is that she bothers to care," said friend Greg Parent. "She could spend her time at the spa or at the country club sipping mint juleps."

Two years ago, when Mumma was honored by the N.C. Bar Association for her pro bono projects, an observer asked her, "Are you really that altruistic, or do you just have a rich husband?"

"Both," Mumma replied.

For the past 10 years, the Mummas have enjoyed the prosperity that came with Mitch Mumma's success at Intersouth Partners in Durham. That financial security helps her to help others, an instinct she embraced even as a young girl.

When Mumma's father, an engineer, took the family to Libya for his work, young Christine, then in middle school, protested the maltreatment of sheep and camels in the open markets. During her senior year in high school, she ran away to Massachusetts to be with a troubled boyfriend who had lost his best friend in a car crash. She called her parents after a week and came back to New Jersey after a month.

Growing up, Mumma was interested in the law, but student loan debt postponed graduate school. After obtaining a business degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, she took a job in corporate finance at Northern Telecom, now Nortel. But even there, the law found Mumma.

Seven months pregnant, Mumma was called to jury duty in a 1988 death-penalty case. James McDowell, a 20-year-old Durham man, shot and killed Sunday school teacher Doris Gillie. Robbery was apparently the motive.

Mumma was dismayed by her close look at the system, particularly the defense attorney.

"I remember him coming in, suit disheveled, sweating, papers falling out of his arms," Mumma said.

The defense attorney, who was disbarred for conspiracy involving drug dealing and fraud two months later, didn't deny McDowell's guilt. He instead tried to convince the jury that McDowell deserved to live. Mumma and her fellow jurors sentenced McDowell to death.

Years later, in a law school paper, Mumma reflected on how inconsistently the death penalty can be applied.

"A jury can have personal bias or fears that even they do not recognize, and an attorney can be good enough but not nearly good enough to provide a good defense," she wrote. "These factors ... can have a greater impact than the weight of the evidence and result in a verdict that is too permanent."

Mumma now opposes the death penalty. She was relieved when McDowell was taken off death row after a state Supreme Court appeal.

Driven to help

As director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, Mumma is her own boss. She is the toughest supervisor she has ever had.

"Her best quality can almost be her worst quality," said her mother, Dee Cecchetti. "She's so conscientious and pushes herself. I don't think she ever leaves the job she's working on. She doesn't know when to stop."

Mumma oversees the center's work, which begins with nearly 1,200 claims of innocence from prisoners each year. They tell their stories in letters that arrive at a small room at Duke University filled with file boxes.

The office has just one paid full-time employee and a patchwork of part-time assistants. The rest are volunteers, with much of the work done by students at seven area law schools. Students at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, Wake Forest, N.C. Central, Elon, Campbell and the Charlotte School of Law work in teams on more than 120 cases.

They pore over trial transcripts to identify an alibi witness who never testified or a bloodstain that could be tested with new technology. The students present their findings to Mumma, who may initiate a deeper inquiry.

To coordinate the efforts, Mumma shuttles from law school to law school in her silver Audi convertible, the car she usually drives, burning through thousands of cell phone minutes a month. Even in biting winter cold, the convertible top is down and the heat is on. She perpetually runs 10 minutes late, a habit she often tries to make up for with the gas pedal. (She has been in court three times in the past four years to negotiate speeding tickets.)

"Chris works all the time," said Sharon Stellato, staff attorney at the center. "She doesn't get tired. She always looks perfect."

But she doesn't get much beauty rest. Mumma often jerks awake in the middle of the night to jot notes on a pad beside her bed. Colleagues are accustomed to getting e-mail from her at 3 a.m., then seeing her early in the morning, smartly dressed in dark cuffed trousers, heels and a dressy ankle-length cardigan that, with her swift stride, floats behind her like a superhero's cape.

She is just one player in a national network to correct and prevent wrongful convictions. Since 1989, 210 people have been exonerated in the U.S. alone through DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project, a national litigation and policy group at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York.

The N.C. Center on Actual Innocence was founded in 2000 by UNC law professor Rich Rosen, who taught Mumma, and Duke law professors Jim Coleman and Theresa Newman. In 2001, after Mumma had spent her first three years out of law school as a judicial clerk, Rosen recruited her to the innocence center. The nonprofit organization is funded through grants and private donations.

Most states now have innocence centers with two priorities -- getting innocent people out of prison and changing the law to prevent wrongful convictions. Mumma devotes her time to both.

"The idea is to ensure the reliability of convictions," Mumma said. "It's as much about keeping the right person in prison as it is about getting the innocent person out."

In 2002, she persuaded Lake, the state Supreme Court justice she clerked for, to create a panel to study wrongful convictions. Lake put Mumma in charge of the group, now known as the Chief Justice's Criminal Justice Study Commission.

"I began to realize, with considerable help from Chris, that we did indeed have a problem," Lake said. "We didn't have any mechanism in the court system to handle a claim of actual innocence after conviction and after appeal."

Victims' advocates, prosecutors and judges protested the idea, saying it shifts compassion from victims to prisoners. But eventually, Lake's conservative, tough-on-crime credentials persuaded skeptics to participate.

"When he and Chris linked up, he gave her a lot of credibility with folks like me, old-line prosecutors," said Branny Vickory, district attorney for Wayne, Greene and Lenoir counties. "If Justice Lake was willing to trust her with this, that meant a lot to me."

In 2003, the commission drafted strict procedures for police lineups that all law enforcement agencies must follow starting in March. The group also lobbied lawmakers to establish the Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent office within the judiciary to investigate claims of innocence. North Carolina became the first state to create such a commission.

She's still the same

On the surface, Christine Mumma is the woman other women love to hate.

She has blond hair and ocean-blue eyes, and she fits into her college-age daughter's clothes. She scaled the corporate ladder in her 20s. Home is a 10,000-square-foot Georgian revival built in the 1930s by UNC benefactor Frank Kenan. It backs up to the sixth hole at Hope Valley Country Club.

Mumma's friends say success has not changed her. She remains a down-to-earth Italian-American girl from New Jersey who holds her own at poker, makes delectable meatloaf and still uses coupons.

"Within minutes of talking to her, she puts you at ease," said Parent, a friend from law school.

At home, Mumma rarely sits down without springing up to answer the phone or put out butter for the dinner rolls. She spends much of her day rushing between meetings and activities for her children: Samantha, 19, Kyle, 17, and Madison, 14.

The family spends hours watching basketball, from Madison's Durham Academy basketball games to Duke's ACC face-offs. Though Mumma has two degrees from UNC, her family's allegiance is to the Blue Devils. The Mummas also love to spend time at their second home at Lake Gaston, near the Virginia border.

The fourth of five children, Mumma cultivated a love for travel in middle school, when the Roman Catholic family moved from East Hanover, N.J., to Libya for her father's job. Ralph Cecchetti ran a gas plant for ExxonMobil, and the family joined about 100 others in a housing compound built for imported Western employees.

In high school, Mumma spent a glorious year at a girls' boarding school in Rome. She keeps a box in her attic with the souvenir 50 lire bus tickets and letters from her first love, Eric, from the neighboring boys school. After she finished ninth grade, the family moved back to the U.S.

Mumma was a junior in high school when she met her husband-to-be. Both she and Mitch Mumma happened to be visiting older siblings at Duke University one weekend in 1979.

Their courtship wasn't instant, but a year later, both moved to Durham. Mitch transferred to Duke, and Christine moved in with older sister Dina and went to UNC. Though her father offered to help each of his children with tuition, Christine paid her own way. She took out student loans and served beer 25 hours a week at the Hideaway, a now-defunct bar at Duke.

"She could engage the crowd like nobody else," said former boss Buck Taylor. "People would come into the bar just to talk to her."

After graduating from UNC in 1985, Christine Cecchetti married Mitch Mumma, whom she dated for five years. The same year, the two bought a small A-frame house, and Christine started at Nortel. At 24, she was managing a small staff.

Mumma worked long hours, often taking on extra tasks to ensure her employees could make it home for dinner, said a former employee, Saundra Freeman. As an assertive, attractive and highly skilled woman in a male-dominated environment, Mumma sometimes clashed with fellow managers, Freeman said. Her intimidated peers nicknamed her "dragon lady."

At times, Mumma said, she considered cutting her hair and wearing glasses to camouflage her looks and minimize resentment toward her. At 33, with three small children, Mumma enrolled in law school.

"Chris and I made the same salary in the mid-1990s when she was considering leaving Nortel," Mitch Mumma said. "But I'm a believer in that you ought to do what you really want to do in life."

Mitch traveled often for work, and the children accompanied their mom to class so often that one professor put their names in an exam. Richard Myers, a classmate at the UNC School of Law, remembers the harried mom grinding her way through school.

"When I met her," he said, "she was driving an eight-year-old Honda Accord with a car seat full of Cheerios."

Balancing kids and school prompted Mumma to give $25,000 to UNC several years ago for a single-parent scholarship.

After graduating from law school, Mumma turned down lucrative job offers in corporate law and worked as a judicial clerk from 1998 to 2001 in the state Court of Appeals and for Lake, the former chief justice.

"I'm a big believer in fate," Mumma said. "My relationships with Rich Rosen and Justice Lake -- I think those were all part of the design."

Leaps of faith

Mumma is not afraid to take risks. Her daughters give an example.

On vacation to Hawaii this year, the family found itself atop a 40-foot seaside cliff. Mumma's three nephews jumped into the water, but her children balked. Mumma ran past a cautionary sign and leapt. She hit the water hard, rear end first and was sore for days. She later learned she had cracked her tailbone.

Three years ago, Mumma did something nearly as daring: She ran for a state Senate seat as a Republican in a heavily Democratic district that includes Durham. She spent more than $300,000 on her campaign, nearly twice as much as the average candidate that year. She lost.

But the defeat allowed her to focus on Dwayne Dail, the man wrongfully imprisoned for the rape of a 12-year-old girl in Goldsboro.

By phone, fax and U.S. mail, Mumma implored Goldsboro police to scour their storage rooms for leftover evidence. This past summer, police found a misplaced box containing the rape victim's nightgown and DNA evidence that won the center its first exoneration. The discovery was pure luck, Mumma said.

"When you're dealing with people's lives, luck shouldn't play such a big part," she said.

At 39, Dail is not much younger than Mumma. But the bond between attorney and client has become nearly that of mother and son. As Dail adjusts to life in a world he left at age 20, his frustrations are Mumma's frustrations. His happiness is her happiness. Mumma has opened her house to the former prisoner and lent him money to buy a used Toyota. Dail calls Mumma his guardian angel.

"What I admire is, obviously, she could do anything she wanted," he said, pointing to Mumma's sprawling home. "But she chooses to commit her life to help people who would not get help from anyone else."

In time, new laws and procedures will ensure the right people are behind bars, Mumma said. Until that day, letters from prison, like the one that took her to the Boone trailer park this month, will continue to arrive. As Mumma's eyes move over the hand-scrawled scripts, she will look past the misspellings and broken grammar in her dogged search for truth.

(Staff writers Joseph Neff and Mandy Locke and news researchers Lamara Williams and Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)

[email protected] or (919) 956-2468

Staff writers Joseph Neff and Mandy Locke and news researchers Lamara Williams and Brooke Cain contributed to this report.

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