Gov. Roy Cooper commuted the sentences of six people currently incarcerated North Carolina prisons and granted pardons of forgiveness to four other people on Tuesday afternoon.
“Ensuring fairness in our justice system through executive clemency is a responsibility I take seriously,” Cooper said. “We carefully consider research and recommendations made by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board to commute sentences for crimes committed by minors. All of these individuals are deserving of clemency and we will continue to work to protect our communities and improve the fairness of our justice system.”
A press release sent by Cooper’s office states that the use of clemency follows an “intensive review” of each application, which includes the circumstances of the crimes involved, the length of the sentences, a person’s conduct while incarcerated and their readiness to adapt to life outside of prison.
The release says the following about those whose sentences were shortened:
- Donnie Parker, 37, who has served 20 years in prison for his role at age 17 in the murder and robbery of Lila Burton McGhee in Person County. The Juvenile Sentence Review Board recommended this commutation. While incarcerated, Mr. Parker has been consistently employed and has successfully participated in work release. His sentence was commuted to time served. Mr. Parker’s projected release date would have been in August 2024.
- Benjamin Williams, 44, who has served 28 years for his role at age 16 in the murder of Kenneth L. Freeman in Edgecombe County. The Juvenile Sentence Review Board recommended this commutation. While incarcerated, Mr. Williams has been consistently employed and participated in learning programs, including obtaining his G.E.D. and trade qualifications. His sentence was commuted to time served. Mr. Williams was scheduled to be released on parole in August 2023.
- Kolanda Wooten, 37, who has served 19 years in prison for her role at age 17 in the murder of Jamaal Rashaud Pearsall in Wayne County. While incarcerated, Ms. Wooten has been consistently employed and has completed professional classes. Her sentence was commuted to time served.
- Joey Graham, 50, who has served 12 years for drug trafficking in Mecklenburg County. Mr. Graham is an Air Force veteran and has been consistently employed while incarcerated. His sentence was commuted to time served.
- TiShekka Cain, 38, who has served seven years for drug trafficking in Guilford County. Ms. Cain has been consistently employed and has participated in work release. Her sentence was commuted to time served. Her projected release date would have been December 2024.
- Janet Danahey, 44, who has served 20 years for the murder of Ryan Bek, Elizabeth Harris, Donna Llewellyn, and Rachel Llewellyn in Guilford County. While incarcerated, Ms. Danahey has been consistently employed and has successfully participated in educational programs. Ms. Danahey’s sentence was commuted to make her parole eligible on January 1, 2023.
Four individuals also received pardons of forgiveness, an action that, per the press release, “reflects the State’s recognition that an individual is forgiven for a past crime and may relieve the recipient from collateral consequences of the past conviction.”
Those given a pardon of forgiveness are:
- Stefany Lewis, 50, who was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury in Robeson County in 1991. Ms. Lewis was 18 years old when the offense was committed. She has since worked as a childcare provider for many years.
- Cathy Grimes, 67, who was convicted of possession with intent to sell and deliver cocaine in Wayne County in 1979. Ms. Grimes was 23 years old when the offense was committed. She has worked as a nurse for many years and is licensed in Maine and New York.
- Eric Colburn, 46, who was convicted of drug offenses and discharging a weapon into an occupied property in New Hanover County in 2001. Mr. Colburn was 23 years old when the offenses were committed. He is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who has worked in finance for many years and been an active volunteer in organizations supporting veterans and children.
- Brenda French, 60, who was convicted of drug and forgery offenses in Forsyth County in 1986 and 1987. Ms. French was 23 years old when the offenses were committed and has worked for years in Forsyth County to help people address addiction issues.
Cooper’s use of clemency comes 20 days into a vigil outside the executive mansion demanding he exercise his broad powers to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“I’m very happy and very thankful that Gov. Cooper is using his executive powers of clemency and commutation to provide relief,” said Kristie Puckett-Williams, deputy director for engagement and mobilization with the ACLU of North Carolina.
Those who were granted pardons of forgiveness, Puckett-Williams said, “get to live life as if they never had involvement with the criminal legal system.”
Puckett-Williams was particularly struck by Cathy Grimes, a 67 year-old woman convicted in 1979 — the same year Puckett-Williams was born — whom Cooper pardoned Tuesday.
“She’s been walking around for 43 years with the scourge of a criminal record,” Puckett-Williams said. “Today, she is a redeemed and restored person.”
The vigil will continue, Puckett-Williams said, despite Cooper’s use of clemency Tuesday afternoon. Cooper used his clemency powers the past two years before the end of the vigil, and still advocates remained in the cold outside his home.
“We will still be here until Jan. 1. because, again, our motto is ‘The vigil never ends,'” Puckett-Williams said. “Until all of our people are home and free, we will always be in vigil.”
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