Governor Cooper has commuted the sentences of three people who were convicted for crimes committed when they were teenagers. The commutations follow an intensive review of their cases, including the length of their sentences, their records in prison, and their readiness to succeed outside of prison.
The commutations are the first recommended to the Governor by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board which he established by Executive Order last year. The commutation applications were thoroughly reviewed by the Office of Executive Clemency, the Office of the General Counsel and the Governor. These commutations end prison sentences on time served.
The creation of the Review Board followed the change in North Carolina law which raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds, making North Carolina the last state in the nation to do so. Studies of brain development and psychology show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds and behavior, and state and federal law treat children differently from adults for the purpose of sentencing.
The Review Board was also part of a series of recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (TREC) that has worked to rectify racial disparities in the criminal justice system. More than 80 percent of people committed to North Carolina prisons for crimes they committed as juveniles are people of color.
“North Carolina law continues to change to recognize that science is even more clear about immature brain development and decision making in younger people,” Cooper said. “As people become adults, they can change, turn their lives around, and engage as productive members of society.”
The three people whose sentences were commuted are:
- April Leigh Barber, 46, who has served 30 years in prison for her role at age 15 in the murders of her grandparents, Lillie and Aaron Barber, in Wilkes County. While incarcerated, Ms. Barber has been consistently employed and has participated in significant programming, including earning her G.E.D. and paralegal certificate. Link to commutation.
- Joshua McKay, 37, who has served 20 years in prison for the murder at age 17 of Mary Catherine Young in Richmond County. While incarcerated, Mr. McKay has been consistently employed, including as a carpenter and welder. Mr. McKay’s projected release date absent this commutation would have been in November 2022. Link to commutation.
- Anthony Willis, 42, who has served 26 years in prison for the murder at age 16 of Benjamin Franklin Miller in Cumberland County. While incarcerated, Mr. Willis has been consistently employed and has completed five college degrees. Link to commutation.
The three people will be subject to post-release supervision by Community Corrections at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to help them succeed and avoid missteps when they return to their communities.
“Most of the individuals who enter prisons will return to their communities one day. Providing high quality, evidenced based treatment and programming is a top priority for our prison system,” said Department of Public Safety Secretary Eddie Buffaloe. “These commutations should inspire individuals who are incarcerated to use all available resources to better themselves and prepare for a successful return to society.”
The Review Board continues to review petitions from those who were incarcerated for crimes committed as juveniles, and looks at many factors in its review, including rehabilitation and maturity demonstrated by the individual, record of education or other work while incarcerated, record of good behavior or infractions, input from the victim or members of the victim’s family, and more.
“Young people are capable of tremendous transformation,” said Marcia Morey, chair of the Juvenile Sentence Review Board. “These commutations of former youth are a step towards a more humane criminal justice system that recognizes the value of rehabilitation and second chances. The Board has gone through a careful and deliberative process to achieve this result.”
Those wishing to have their sentences reviewed may submit petitions, which have been made available to those eligible. Some pro bono legal help has been provided by North Carolina law schools and advocates.
The Review Board’s four members are attorneys with years of expertise in the criminal justice system, including work as prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and lawmakers.
- Marcia Morey, a former District Court Judge in juvenile court and former Assistant District Attorney in Durham. She previously worked as Executive Director of the Governor’s Commission on Juvenile Crime and Justice and is a state legislator.
- Mickey Michaux Jr., a former US Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina and member of the North Carolina General Assembly and its longest serving member upon retirement. He is an attorney in private practice.
- Thomas Walker, a former US Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina and former lawyer at the NC Attorney General’s office. He is an attorney in private practice.
- Allyson Duncan, a former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and the NC Court of Appeals. She is an attorney formerly in private practice.