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Head 'Em Up, Move 'Em Out

Why murderers are going free

I'll never forget James Herbert Green. A few weeks before he murdered real estate agent JoAnne Flemming for her car in 1989, he walked me to mine. It was something Green, then 19, often offered to do for the girls in my Junior Achievement Class, since the Sharon Amity parking lot outside the building was considered dangerous. Charming guy. Everyone liked him. Which means his next victim probably won't see him coming when he gets out on work release, which he's now eligible for.

Green is supposed to be serving a life sentence. But then, so is Fred Coffee. Coffee was sentenced to death for the 1979 murder of 10-year-old Amanda Ray, whose body turned up in a lake in Huntersville. On appeal, Coffee was re-sentenced to life in prison. He's now eligible for parole. Ditto for David McCullough and an accomplice, who shot and killed two clerks execution-style at the Days Inn Motel on Tuckaseegee Road in 1973. They too were sentenced to death, but an appeals court later changed the verdict to life. Both are up for parole this fall. So far, McCullough has refused to cooperate with parole officials seeking to put together an action plan that would speed his release. That's slowed his release, said parole board executive director Melita Grooms, but he will likely eventually get out anyway.

In 1993, after a neighbor confronted Annie McManus about stealing $25 from him, she stabbed him with a butcher knife on her front lawn. Another neighbor fought her off with a baseball bat until police arrived, but the victim died anyway. McManus was sentenced to 50 years for the murder, but after 11 years, she's eligible for parole. So's James Theodore Friday, who shot his girlfriend in 1993 after a confrontation. When she begged him for help, he told her he would put her out of her misery and shot her again in the stomach. She later died at the hospital. You guessed it: Friday is up for parole.

And so is Noel Harren, who got life in prison for breaking into a family home and raping an 11-year-old girl in 1979.

These folks were among the nine violent criminals who committed their crimes in Mecklenburg County and whose parole eligibility was announced this month by the city's Citizens' Parole Accountability Committee. Keep in mind, that's just the list for this month, for this county. This year, dozens more just like them who committed their crimes in the 99 other counties in this state will also be eligible for parole. Unlike Mecklenburg, none of those counties have parole accountability committees to coordinate letter-writing campaigns against their release, which sometimes work and sometimes don't. So the odds that they'll walk are even higher.

What all the folks above have in common is that they were sentenced for their crimes before 1994, when the state legislature adopted structured sentencing. Back then, a life sentence was more like a temporary siesta. According to the North Carolina Sentencing Commission, before 1994, there were so many ways convicts could shave time off their sentences, the average felon served less than 20 percent of their sentence. That, in turn, made it very possible that defendants could not only beat death sentences, but could subsequently walk out of prison without serving a life sentence.

Now, under structured sentencing, the average felon serves 100 percent of the minimum sentence imposed, which means that a life sentence without parole really is a life sentence. Had they been sentenced under the new system, most of the folks above would be leaving prison the way they should be -- in a pine box.

And that's the problem. Structured sentencing works so well that North Carolina legislators have haphazardly expanded it to "get tough" on so many crimes, in particular misdemeanor crimes and those related to drug use, that our jails are bursting at the seams. That, in turn, is giving structured sentencing a bad name it doesn't deserve.

These days, cases in which murderers go free because they committed their crimes before structured sentencing aren't the ones making the news. Instead, you hear about cases like that of Jennifer Bigham, 29, of Waxhaw, who was charged as an habitual felon after writing four bad checks to fund her drug addiction. Bigham was sentenced to eight years in prison, a tougher sentence than she'd have gotten on a first conviction for voluntary manslaughter, kidnapping or robbery with a firearm, and just three years less than what Annie McManus may serve for murdering someone on her front lawn with a butcher knife.

The bottom line is that structured sentencing hasn't failed. It's just evolved into an increasingly complex system that's getting a bad rap for some good reasons that could be fixed without letting the James Greens of the world see the light of day.

Contact Tara Servatius at

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