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Gov. Cooper grants clemency to three who offended as teenagers

Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer
TNS via Getty Images

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper granted clemency on Thursday to three prisoners who had pleaded guilty to murders committed while in their teens, after a new panel recommended their release following decades behind bars.

Cooper signed clemency papers, which take effect March 24, for April Leigh Barber, Joshua Chase McKay and Anthony Kasheen Willis. The commutations mean their active prison sentences will end on time served.

The commutations are based on the first recommendations presented to Cooper by a four-member Juvenile Sentence Review Board, composed of attorneys and former judges. The commutation applications of the offenders also were reviewed by the governor and administration attorneys, Cooper's office said.

Barber, 46, has served 30 years in prison for her role in the murders of her grandparents in Wilkes County when she was 15, Cooper’s office said. She had been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. McKay, 37, has served 20 years in prison for second-degree murder at age 17 of Mary Catherine Young in Richmond County and for other crimes. And the 42-year-old Willis has served 26 years in prison for first-degree murder at age 16 of Benjamin Franklin Miller in Cumberland County, and for another crime.

Cooper issued an executive order last year to create the board, which reviews petitions from people who were tried and sentenced in adult criminal court for acts committed before turning 18. Depending on their circumstances, the person must have served at least 15 or 20 years of their sentence to warrant review.

The board was an idea of a task force on racial equity in the justice system that Cooper formed in 2020, created in the wake of demonstrations nationwide following the death of George Floyd while held by Minneapolis police.

In 2019, a new state law ended the practice of 16- and 17-year-olds being automatically tried in adult court for most nonviolent or less serious felonies. Supporters of the change said it was more appropriate to bring young offenders through the juvenile system, pointing in part to emerging science about the development of a teenager's brain into adulthood.

“As people become adults, they can change, turn their lives around, and engage as productive members of society,” the Democratic governor said in a news release.

The board's review examines in part each offender's maturity and rehabilitative qualities. All three offenders with the commuted sentences have been “consistently employed," Cooper's office said. McKay has worked as a welder and carpenter. Barber earned a paralegal certificate and Willis, several college degrees.

“These commutations should inspire individuals who are incarcerated to use all available resources to better themselves and prepare for a successful return to society,” Department of Public Safety Secretary Eddie Buffaloe said in a news release.

The North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union praised the commutations in a separate release, while also urging additional changes by state leaders to improve fairness in the treatment of young offenders.

Willis, McKay and Barber will be subject to post-release supervision and could see their commutations canceled or modified if they commit certain crimes or violate other rules within a period of time.

Members of the review panel are state Rep. Marcia Morey, a former District Court judge; former Rep. Mickey Michaux; former U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker; and Allyson Duncan, a former federal appeals court judge.

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