A new Duke University report finds evidence of racial bias in North Carolina's soaring number of life without parole sentences. (Image via Shutterstock) Criminal Justice Reform in NC
A new Duke University report finds evidence of racial bias in North Carolina's soaring number of life without parole sentences. (Image via Shutterstock)

In a ground-breaking report, a team of Duke researchers finds a relationship between the race of victims and life without parole sentences in North Carolina. 

Clive Hurst was 19 years old in October 1994 when he joined three friends in an ill-fated attempt to rob a Durham drug dealer.

He wasn’t carrying a weapon, but one of his friends was, and the break-in ended with the dealer’s live-in partner shot dead. When then-Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline argued that Clive might as well have been carrying the gun, Clive was convicted of first-degree murder and breaking and entering. He was sentenced to a lifetime in prison.

Had the crime occurred a month earlier, Clive—now a 45-year-old who’s 26 years into a life without parole sentence in Nash Correctional—would have been eligible for parole. 

But lawmakers in North Carolina, one of many states that began cracking down on parole in the early 1990s, codified new harsher sentences. 

Aside from the death penalty, an increasingly unpopular practice in the states, life without parole is the most stringent criminal penalty available, and a new report from researchers at Duke University’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice says it has been disproportionately wielded against Black North Carolinians like Clive, particularly if the victim is white. 

“We’re not looking necessarily at Bull Connor in the D.A.’s office and the courts,” says Henderson Hill, a NC-based civil rights attorney in the ACLU’s Sentencing Project. “But there are patterns and there are legacies that come from a dark place, that value certain lives more than they value other lives.”

The Duke report, produced after two years of compiling and scrutinizing North Carolina sentencing data, examined more than 1,600 life without parole, or LWOP, cases in the state from 1995 to 2017. The data is stark in NC, one of the states that imposes the largest number of lifetime sentences in the country. 

The paper found that the LWOP sentence has been on the rise even as homicides have steadily declined. And in North Carolina, where it’s mandatory for first-degree murder convictions, it is a more common and “easily-imposed” sentence as the public and prosecutors turn away from the death penalty. (North Carolina is one of 28 states with the death penalty though there hasn’t been an execution since 2006). But the lifetime without parole sentence has “distinct racial biases and prosecution incentives,” researchers argue.

Chief among them, they found that in crimes with a white victim, the accused is more likely to receive a lifetime sentence. The data indicate not just a relationship with the race of the victim. Black defendants are also more likely to land an LWOP in murder cases.

Brandon Garrett, a Duke law professor who co-authored the report, called it the “white lives matter effect.”

“We shouldn’t be tolerating it,” Garrett said. “We hope this is the beginning of a serious look at how the most serious sentences are imposed in North Carolina.”

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A ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest in Raleigh in August 2020. Criminal justice reform has a been a core component of racial injustice protests in NC and in the US in 2020. (Image via Shutterstock)

‘What sort of a society are we?’

To Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at NC Prisoner Legal Services, his client Clive is a clear example of the biases many point to as implicit in the criminal justice system. 

Decades of research have found significant links between death sentencing and harsher punishments in general for Black defendants in the US. But the new Duke report depicts how the emergence of the life without parole sentence, part of a 90s push to get tougher on crime at both the federal and state level, hasn’t been applied equally in North Carolina. 

Researchers say their report shouldn’t be used to point to discrimination in any particular case. But while most murder cases involve victims and defendants of the same race, the larger patterns are clearly indicative that race plays some part in the sentencing. 

The report’s authors also say the data support evidence that laws giving broader discretion over sentencing to prosecutors is tilting the criminal justice system against Black Americans.

Indeed, in counties with more Black homicide victims, there are “significantly” fewer LWOP sentences than in counties with more white victims. 

Duke researchers characterized their work as the first to empirically analyze case and local-level data to examine the increase in LWOPs. 

“The questions that this report raises must inform our policy,” says Hill, a longtime civil rights attorney in North Carolina. “We should be challenged. We should be questioning whether the discretionary use is appropriate.”

Hill added that North Carolina lawmakers and local prosecutors should be using the data to reform criminal justice policies that unfairly target certain races. 

“What sort of a society are we?” asks state Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat and former district court judge in North Carolina who, like Hill, sits on Gov. Roy Cooper’s task force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. “Do we give people the chance for retribution?”

Cooper created the panel this summer after weeks of racial justice protests in North Carolina and across the US following the police involved killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as the shooting of Wisconsin man Jacob Blake.

“Life without parole is one of the most egregious forms of racial discrimination and inequity in our criminal justice system,” Morey said Tuesday. Republicans in the GOP-controlled state legislature have been reluctant to commit to any reforms after a summer of Black Lives Matter protests in the country, but Democrats like Morey have been more receptive.

Morey says racial bias can be found in criminal statutes starting with juveniles and lasting into adulthood. Black youth are also more likely than their white peers to face court-involved discipline stemming from school offenses, playing into what many social justice reformers call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“How do we get a more just and fair justice system?” Morey asked. 

Garrett says the data in their report is troubling for many reasons, but perhaps the most puzzling point is that the harsher sentences have persisted despite declining violent crime and homicide rates in the country. 

Additionally, Garrett noted that counties with greater numbers of LWOP sentences seem to be a predictor of future sentences. “There’s this inertia,” Garrett said.

“In our analysis of LWOP sentences in North Carolina, we find the imposition of LWOP is

determined in part by the past: counties that have imposed LWOP sentences in the past are more likely to continue to do so,” said Travis Seale-Carlisle, a postdoc student at Duke and another of the report’s co-authors. “Our findings urge reconsideration of the use of LWOP sentencing in North Carolina.”

Criminal justice reform has played a role in the national elections this year, partly because of this summer’s protests and also because vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, a supporter of criminal justice reform, is a former California prosecutor. Gov. Cooper, the state’s former attorney general and, thus, its top prosecutor, has also been under pressure to address criminal justice.

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry, whose district was home to Clive’s case more than two decades ago, made progressive criminal justice a part of her platform when she was elected in 2018. In a statement this week, Deberry, who’s been vocal about police and prosecutorial bias impacting Black North Carolinians, called the new Duke report “thought-provoking research” about how defendants are sentenced. 

“Calibrating sentences for violent crimes, particularly homicides, is perhaps the hardest thing

we do as prosecutors,” said Deberry. “It involves balancing the wishes of the victim’s family, the best interests of our community, and our obligations as ministers of justice. Sentencing a person to spend the rest of his natural life in prison is extremely serious.”

Find a full copy of the Duke report here.