Late last week, Gov. Roy Cooper announced he would commute the sentences of April Barber, Joshua McKay, and Anthony Willis — three individuals who were sentenced to long terms in prison for crimes they committed when they were teenagers.
This is the first time Cooper has exercised his clemency power since he was elected Governor in 2017, and the first commutations to come as the result of recommendations by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board. The last Governor to exercise commutation power resulting in the release of individuals from prison was Michael Easley — two people were released after he commutated their sentences during his last week in office more than 13 years ago.
“There are massive racial disparities in conviction and sentencing of juveniles in North Carolina,” said Ben Finholt, Director of the Just Sentencing Project at the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law School. “Of those eligible for consideration by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board, 75% are Black/African-American and 82% are people of color. This disparity requires continued review and action.”
He added that there is so much more known today about the way children’s brains operate and evolve as they age than there was 30 years ago when the false “super-predator” narrative drove a shift toward extreme sentencing of children.
“I was glad to see the Juvenile Sentence Review Board and Governor Cooper take vital first steps to balance the scales of justice,” Finholt said. “Governor Cooper utilized a longstanding power of executives that was designed to ensure just outcomes within our legal system. Executive clemency is a bedrock legal principle, described by the U.S. Supreme Court as the ‘fail-safe’ in our criminal legal system.”
Barber, McKay and Willis were each convicted when they were teenagers in unrelated murder cases. They were determined to have demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation despite entering prison after difficult childhoods. Barber is 46 years old, and has served 30 years; she earned her G.E.D. and paralegal certification, and will work as a paralegal upon release. McKay is 37, and has served 20 years; he has been on work release for three years and will be employed by the same welding company after leaving prison. Willis is 42, and has served 26 years — he has earned five college degrees while incarcerated.
The Wilson Center serves as the clearinghouse for the Juvenile Sentence Review Board, matching pro bono advocates with clients and processing completed petitions for submission. The matching process includes sending questionnaires to eligible individuals and gathering data on every unrepresented person.
Governor Cooper established the Juvenile Sentence Review Board in early 2021 to review extreme sentences imposed on individuals who were tried and sentenced in adult criminal court for acts they committed before turning 18, and who have served at least 15 to 20 years. The four-person Board makes recommendations to Cooper on clemency and commutation of their sentences when appropriate.
The Wilson Center has also worked closely with the Governor’s Clemency Office to field inquiries from petitioners and the public to reduce potential confusion about this new mechanism.
“We strongly commend the Juvenile Sentence Review Board and Governor Cooper for taking significant action informed by the science that people can and do change and mature — and deserve second chances,” said Wilson Center Executive Director Yvette Garcia Missri. “Granting clemency to Ms. Barber, Mr. McKay, and Mr. Willis is an important step toward meaningful criminal legal reform, and to realizing one of the vital recommendations of the Governor’s Task force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.”
To date, advocates have submitted approximately 30 additional applications to the Review Board, and there are dozens more to be submitted by individuals without pro bono or other support.
“The commutations for Ms. Barber, Mr. McKay, and Mr. Willis are the first three to come from this new process, but will not be the last,” said Finholt. “The work of the Juvenile Sentencing Review Board is so important for the people of our state, and I look forward to our continued partnership as they consider the more than 300 people still eligible for review.”
Wilson Center Director Brandon Garrett added:
“We are so proud of Ben Finholt’s tireless work at our Center and the hard work of the Juvenile Sentencing Review Board members, as well as the pro bono attorneys who worked so hard to represent these individuals, including Jamie Lau, of our Duke Law wrongful convictions clinic, and our third-year law student, Adelyn Curran. The ongoing efforts of the JSRB and the leadership of Governor Cooper, will no doubt in time provide a model for other states rethinking the unnecessary severity of youth criminal sentencing.”
The Wilson Center for Science and Justice brings together faculty and students at Duke University in law, medicine, public policy, and arts and sciences to pursue research, policy and law reform, and education to improve criminal justice outcomes. Our three main areas of focus are: accuracy of evidence in criminal cases, equity in criminal outcomes, and behavioral health needs.