Duke Researchers Report Life Without Parole Sentencing on Rise; Blacks Hurt Most

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Person’s hands holding prison bars.

By Ariel Abdallah

NORTH CAROLINA – Researchers from the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at the Duke University School of Law reported an increase of life without parole sentencing in North Carolina – more than 1,600 people have been sentenced to life without parole in North Carolina since 1995-2017.

The report suggests that while murder and homicide rates in the state are in steady decline, decades of research notes this sentencing occurs more frequently in counties with more White victims, similar to findings for the death penalty.

No limits exist to whom life without parole is given in North Carolina. Unlike juvenile cases, adult cases never get an inquiry. The allowance of broad discretion by district attorneys results in victims of race, according to researchers.

Marcia Morey with Duke said, “Life without parole is one of the most egregious forms of our racial discrimination and inequity in our criminal justice system.” Ninety-one percent of juveniles sentenced to life without parole before the age of 18 are kids of color, she added.

Morey noted, these statistics are evidence a justice system that values some lives more than other lives. The response to cases with White victims is overwhelmingly “life without parole.” Cases with White victims with Black defendants are not the norm anywhere in the United States; most homicides occur within the same race.

Studies show a stronger victim race effect when predicting life without parole sentences for Black defendants and a weaker victim race effect for White defendants.

Ben Finhoit describe the story of his 19-year-old client, Clyde. Along with a group of friends, Clyde attempted to rob a drug dealer. In the process, someone was shot, but the friend with the gun got away.

Clyde was never even accused of being the shooter, but he was convicted of first-degree murder based on a felony murder charge. The prosecutor made this connection by claiming he conspired with the shooter to bring a gun. Clyde’s most serious crime was breaking and entering, a felony that usually gets about six months.

Instead, he was sentenced to life without parole, but has zero infractions. This feat is extremely rare among those with life without parole since they often lack the incentive to obey prison officers.

The Duke Law study showed that when comparing the race of victims with defendants, there are clear correlations. The strongest one being negative between Black victims and Black defendants, meaning there is large drop in life without parole sentencing.

There is no correlation between White victims and Black defendants. There is no drop-in life without parole sentencing when the number of White victims increases in a given year. Essentially, the data points to “lwop” being given for cases with White victims and not Black victims of crime.

In regard to reform, researchers argue, North Carolina can implement two measures already in place from other times and situations. One statute is a 25-year review provision and allows people to apply this option every two years “where a judge has to take a look at the trial record and any other information that he or she deems relevant and decide whether or not that person’s statement should stay the way it is.”

The second measure is allowing these people to be eligible for parole after 25 years. These two standards combined with more due process laws will allow for positive restructuring.


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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