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Justice delayed in Anthony Marcus case

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It's been six years since Judge W. Robert Bell signed the plea deal that let Anthony Earmond Marcus walk out of jail with only probation for stealing Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon's car.

Marcus got eight to 10 months in prison for that, but Bell suspended his prison sentence in May 2004, which means he only had to do probation for the crime, rather than the prison time he qualified to serve. He promptly skipped out on probation. Two months later, he put a gun to Olivia Gail Sigmon's head and executed her in front of her 11-year-old daughter.

Marcus and his then 16-year-old brother were fresh from another armed robbery, driving a Geo Metro they'd stolen, when they crashed it at the intersection of Tuckaseegee and Berryhill roads. Sigmon made the mistake of stopping to help.

Had Marcus been in prison where he belonged, a young girl would have grown up with a mother. Bell later explained to me that he didn't like to send young men like Marcus to prison because the state's prisons were crowded and it may lead them to associate with people who would push them further into a life of crime.

At the time of the murder, Marcus also had several charges and convictions on his record, including misdemeanor larceny, larceny of a motor vehicle and breaking and entering in Pender and New Hanover counties. Another felony auto theft charge was dismissed by the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office in 2000.

A jury recently decided that Marcus, who'd never seen the inside of a prison at the time of the murder despite his lengthy record, will spend the rest of his life there. The judge who'd wanted to protect him from a short sentence in state prison ultimately failed him. Had he done his time, Sigmon would still be alive. And it is possible Marcus, now 27, wouldn't face life behind bars.

I've always thought our local justice system was unfair to people like Marcus. Well-meaning judges, the prosecutors who enable them and defense attorneys who've drunk way too much of their clients' Kool-Aid work together to spring people like Marcus who are clearly in a downward spiral of violence. Nearly every week on my radio show I profile someone who is presently on probation for multiple auto thefts and is now moving on to armed robbery. Often they are on their second set of armed robbery charges while awaiting adjudication of old auto theft charges from two years ago.

They're almost always out on the street because some judge suspended their prison sentences and allowed them to do probation instead so they wouldn't have to go to prison. Often a succession of judges has done so in plea deals cut with the blessing of the district attorney. It's not unusual for young men like Marcus to be on probation for several violent crimes at once without ever having served prison time.

I usually latch onto them around the time they're charged with their first armed robbery. Into the "murder and mayhem" file they go. Then the radio audience and I watch them go downhill over a series of months or years. It's so textbook that I've become adept at predicting what crimes they'll be arrested on next.

They almost always have one thing in common: None of them have ever seen the inside of a state prison. They've spent weeks at a time in the county jail while they waited to bond out, but they've never done actual prison time. I've always believed that was grossly unfair to their victims. More recently, I've begun to feel it's unfair to them as well.

Prison is a horrible place. But thanks to his enablers on the judge's bench and in the defense attorneys' and prosecutors' offices, Marcus and those like him who go on to kill never get a chance to truly choose it, to experience life on the inside, get out, and then make the choice to pull the trigger again in that last horrible crime that puts them away for most or all of their lives.

If you think about it from Marcus' perspective, after you've stolen the car of the second highest-ranking elected official in the city right out of his driveway, taken your victory lap on the evening news and walked away with probation -- again -- you naturally assume you can do whatever the hell you want with no consequences. Or at least those consequences don't seem real.

Studies show that 62.5 percent of state inmates released from state prison are re-arrested within three years and 46.8 percent are reconvicted, with 41 percent returning to prison here or elsewhere. These statistics are usually used to show the "failure" of the prison system, which has always been bizarre to me. Given the population of people in question here, that more than a third don't return seems like a phenomenal success rate.

Marcus never got that chance to stop his spiral with a cooling-off period in which the public was protected from him and he was protected from himself. That's a shame.

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