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Walking Free 

Life sentences are alarmingly overturned in N.C.

As our state prisons burst at the seams, a conga line of the state's most brutal murderers is shuffling right out the doors of our prison system. Many were given life sentences and were never supposed to see the outside of a prison again. Several were death row inmates. Some killed cops. Some of those paroled by the commission over the last decade have served less than 15 years of their "life" sentences for murder.

Yet out the door they go, thanks to the North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission. John Cherry was sentenced to death for the murder of a grocery store clerk he shot in the face while robbing a Charlotte grocery mart in 1977. In 1980, Cherry's death sentence was overturned and he was resentenced to life in prison. Last year, the commission paroled him. This fall, two other former death row inmates from Mecklenburg County who were resentenced to life in prison have parole decisions pending, as do dozens of others who are serving murder sentences.

A recent investigation by the Asheville Citizen-Times found that since 1995, 216 inmates given life sentences for murder have been paroled statewide by the parole commission. The problem is that different sentencing guidelines apply to those who committed their crimes before 1994. Today, if you are sentenced to life in prison, you serve it with no possibility of parole. Prison sentences now come with a minimum number of years the defendant must serve. But before 1994, when sentencing rules were reformed, it wasn't unusual for criminals to serve just 20 percent of their sentences.

The three members of North Carolina's Parole Commission are appointed by the Governor. The majority of the commission -- two members -- must agree to deny or approve parole for all eligible offenders. That's a hell of a lot of power concentrated in the hand of just three people. And though the commission isn't required to parole anyone -- the process is partially subjective and individualized -- the commission has a long history of near unfathomable sympathy toward those up for parole.

All this makes the parole process for pre-1994 criminals a brutal one for victims' families who are re-victimized every time the offender comes up for parole. The families know that the offender has a higher chance of being released if the parole commission isn't bombarded with letters on behalf of the victim reminding them of the suffering the killer caused. So every other year or so, victims' families must re-launch their campaign, recruiting friends and community members to write hundreds of letters to force the system to remember the victim. In Charlotte, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police keep track of who is up for parole. (Go to www.charmeck.org/Departments/CMPD/CPAC/Inmates/Home.htm).

In most of the rest of the state's counties, no one tracks who is up for parole. And since the state doesn't dole this information out to regular people without a freedom of information act request, most citizens are kept in the dark about who is up for parole and the parole process.

It's a process I've been writing about for years, one that often devolves into a macabre popularity contest between the murderer, his or her advocates in the prison system, and the victim's family. Unfortunately, it's a game that the victim's family is eventually likely to lose in many cases.

That's when the system remembers to inform the victim's family about what is going on, which doesn't always happen. Betty Norton Young would have fought the fight to keep Phillip Eugene Turpin in prison had she known he was up for parole. Turpin and a friend tricked Young's husband, Tommy Norton, and Benny Hudgins, Norton's business partner, into stopping to help them fix a flat tire as the two left town on a fishing trip in 1977. Turpin and his friend then robbed and murdered Norton and Hudgins. Turpin was given two life sentences for the crime.

Betty Norton Young and her son, who was 12 when his dad was murdered, would have launched one of those letter-writing campaigns, but they didn't find out about Turpin's release until after the fact. The Nortons later got a letter from the North Carolina Department of Correction explaining that they hadn't been notified because their contact information wasn't updated, the Citizen-Times reported. But oddly enough, Turpin, now 48, had no trouble locating the Nortons. According to the Times, Betty Norton began receiving threatening phone calls from Turpin soon after his release. Yancy County Sheriff's Office deputies traced the calls to a pay phone in San Diego, California, where Turpin was released. "I'll be seeing you," Turpin promised Betty Norton in one of the calls.

There is a movement gaining traction across the nation to abolish mandatory minimum sentencing. The goals of groups involved vary. Some claim they only want to abolish mandatory sentences for insignificant crimes -- though I've never believed they would stop there. Others would like to take us back to the way it was before 1994. They like to complain that our prisons have grown too full. But in cases like these, it's mandatory minimum sentencing that is now keeping murderers behind bars for the full lengths of their sentences. And it's hard to argue that that's a bad idea.

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