They were sentenced to long prison terms for crimes they committed in their teens. But North Carolina opened a potential door to get them out.
This article was produced in partnership with The News and Observer.
In December 1995, Christopher Jacobs and two teenage friends robbed a convenience store in Scotland County. During the robbery, Jacobs’ friend shot and killed store owner Truman Oxendine. Scotland County prosecutors charged Jacobs as an adult with first-degree murder under North Carolina’s felony-murder law.
He was 16.
Jacobs awaited trial for more than three years in the Scotland County Jail in Laurinburg, trying to hang himself at one point. At the urging of a family member he rejected a plea deal for second-degree murder, which would have likely led to his release in 12 years.
When Jacobs finally went to trial in 1999 he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Gov. Roy Cooper in 2021 signed an executive order establishing a Juvenile Sentence Review Board. It’s a potential path out of state prison for Jacobs and hundreds of others serving long prison terms for crimes committed while they were teens.
Those applying must have been imprisoned for 15 to 20 years and display “rehabilitation and maturity.”
“North Carolina law continues to change to recognize that science is even more clear about immature brain development and decision making in younger people,” Cooper said at the time. “As people become adults, they can change, turn their lives around, and engage as productive members of society.”
Nearly two years later, some criminal justice reform advocates have less confidence that Cooper’s steps will do enough to help 259 people estimated to meet the criteria needed to get their sentences reviewed.
Cooper’s executive order expires on Dec. 31, 2024. But so far the governor has commuted the sentences of only five people recommended by the board.
Additionally, advocates say, the review and clemency process lacks transparency. There’s no way to judge whether the majority of people eligible to apply, 80 percent of them people of color, will receive relief, they say.
That includes Jacobs, a Native American man incarcerated for more than 27 years. He has received no official update regarding his petition since it was submitted 15 months ago, he and an advocate say.
“Every Monday, I’m very hopeful — I hope this is the week,” Jacobs said in a phone interview from Nash Correctional Institution. “And as Friday gets closer, I get depressed, I get frustrated, I get scared, because I realize this isn’t going to be the week. It’s not going to happen this week.”
The JSRB was created at the urging of Cooper’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, established in 2020 to address inequities affecting communities of color and develop more racial equity in the state’s criminal legal system.
When reviewing applications for clemency, the role racial discrimination played at a person’s trial or sentencing, where relevant, is also considered.
Extreme racial disparities exist in North Carolina cases in which defendants were sentenced for crimes committed while they were minors, according to data from Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at Duke University Law School.
As of June 2022, people of color made up 80.8 percent of the 934 people in North Carolina prisons who were incarcerated for crimes committed while they were minors. Racial and ethnic minorities include 80 percent or slightly more of those in this group sentenced to 30 years or more, life with parole or life without parole.
The Juvenile Sentence Review Board is working to review applications filed by those in state prisons who are eligible to have their cases reassessed, said Sam Chan, Cooper’s press secretary.
“The Board thoroughly reviews submitted petitions, after which its recommendations are carefully reviewed by the Office of Executive Clemency, the Office of General Counsel, and the Governor. This process is ongoing and has resulted in three commutations in March 2022 and two in December 2022, with more petitions under review,” Chan wrote in response to questions.
20, 30, 40 years is not the answer — that shows no chance of redemption, fairness, or justice.April Barber
In September 2021, Jacobs’ legal team submitted a nearly 200-page petition to the Juvenile Sentence Review Board. It included text of interviews with family members, foster parents, teachers, social workers and other people who knew Jacobs, who is now 43, along with school transcripts and records from the Scotland County Department of Social Services.
It stresses Jacobs’ positive behaviors in prison, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry with a counseling minor from the North Carolina Field Minister Program in December 2021. He helped raise more than $12,000 for nonprofit organizations such as Turning Point, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence in Monroe, and organized prison events like a father-daughter dance.
The petition seeking his release includes letters of support from prison staff who described Jacobs as a “peacemaker” and a model for rehabilitation and success in prison. Other incarcerated people vouched for him too, including Robert Manning.
“With Chris it is always an easy flow of companionship, support and a genuine, authentic friendship,” Manning said in a phone interview from Nash Correctional Institution. “I knew there was something special when I wanted to introduce him to my parents.”
Manning’s family has committed to help with Jacobs’ re-entry if he were to be released. They’ve offered to provide housing, employment and a cellphone.
“Chris is not just someone who we have crossed paths with and want to help,” Manning’s mother wrote in a letter to the JSRB. “Chris has become a part of our family, and we are vested as if he were our very own son to succeed in his re-entry and building a great life beyond those walls.”
Documents filed with the Juvenile Sentence Review Board make clear Jacobs did not always have family support.
A history of Jacobs’ life prepared by mitigation specialist Kristen Anderson for the review board puts Jacobs’ life in the context of class, race and generational trauma.
As a baby, he was sent to live with his grandparents on a tenant farm in Gibson, in rural Scotland County, in 1979, according to the report. His mother was 17 and unable to properly care for him. One night, while his mother slept, a diaper-clad Jacobs crawled outside into the snow.
At his new home in Scotland County, Jacobs was carefully watched by his grandparents. He prayed before bed and squeezed in between his grandparents in bed at night, often falling asleep to old gospel music that his grandfather played to soothe him.
“That prayer and that music, for whatever reason, in my mind, if I did that, I was safe,” Jacobs said in an interview. “Like the devil wouldn’t get me — I didn’t have to worry about anything evil or nefarious.”
But when Jacobs was in third grade, his grandmother was disabled by a stroke. After his grandfather moved out, Jacobs continued to live at the farm with his grandmother until the owner cut the electricity and water. Social services got involved after Jacobs showed up at his third grade teacher’s home pulling a wagon and asking for water, the report states.
Just days before his 11th birthday, Jacobs was placed into the foster care system. For five years, Jacobs lived in a series of foster homes, group homes and orphanages in North Carolina. When he was 16, social services returned Jacobs to his mother, who struggled with drug dependency for years.
When she and her boyfriend were arrested for growing marijuana in their home, Jacobs sold some of his mother’s boyfriend’s belongings to bail her out. When he returned home from jail, he insisted that she kick Jacobs out.
“By the time he was 16, Chris had lived in eight households and three group homes,” Anderson wrote. “Chris was too young to understand that the adults in his life were navigating the impact of generational poverty endemic to the Lumbee community of Scotland and the surrounding counties.”
While incarcerated, Jacobs made the best of what he had, Anderson said in an interview. “He’s done everything he can in prison to better himself, and quite frankly, everyone around him,” she said.
So Anderson was disappointed when Jacobs wasn’t included in the first group of people who had their sentences commuted by the governor in March.
“My sort of feeling is if Chris can’t get out through this, then then who can?” Anderson said. “To me, he’s kind of a model candidate for this form of relief.”
JSRB is part of a trend of reforms, policies and court rulings taking into account evolving scientific studies on brain science and child development.
Researchers point to the differences between the brains of adults and childrenand that people continue to develop cognitively well into their 20s, when impulsive behavior often lessens. Adverse childhood effects like abuse, neglect, environmental toxins such as lead paint, and poverty can heighten risks a minor may take, they say.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case originating in North Carolina that age should be considered as a factor when determining if a child is actually in police custody. In 2005, police officers questioned a Black, 13-year-old special education student for 30 minutes at his middle school about a rash of neighborhood break-ins. The child confessed, but tried to retract it. His attorneys argued at trial that he should have been read his Miranda rights because he was in police custody.
While the trial court, North Carolina Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court ruled that the child was not in custody when he confessed, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, citing developments in brain science. “It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the majority opinion. Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general at the time, represented the state in the case.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for children violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling forced states like North Carolina that imposed such sentences to hold sentencing and resentencing hearings.
North Carolina’s General Assembly passed a law in July 2012 that created an alternative to mandatory life without parole for children, essentially allowing for parole eligibility after serving 25 years, if a judge saw fit.
In keeping with a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the Miller decision should be applied retroactively, Jacobs had a resentencing hearing in July, where he was resentenced to life with parole.
Jacobs accepts culpability for the lethal robbery. At the hearing, he apologized to the victim’s family. He also reflected on his personal growth during 27 years in prison.
“So many years ago, I stood in this courtroom as a 16-year-old,” Jacobs said. “I am no longer consumed with anger aimed at a world which I felt had abused and abandoned me. But as to shame — it yet endures.”
Members of Oxendine’s family opposed Jacobs’ resentencing, the Scotland County District Attorney’s Office noted, according to Anderson.
As of January, 259 people in North Carolina prisons have been confined in prison long enough to be eligible to apply for relief from lengthy sentences made when they were minors, Finholt said. Jacobs is one of at least 54 people who have submitted petitions to the JSRB and are awaiting a decision from the board, he said.
Advocates for people serving long prison terms they received when they were children said relief from the JSRB is meant to offer relief that hasn’t otherwise been available for years.
Despite a 2021 poll showing voters in North Carolina strongly support the use of clemency to reduce the prison population, Cooper didn’t commute a single sentence in his first five years in office.
While hundreds of clemency requests were granted in North Carolina between 1977 and 2000, in the more than two decades since, only a handful of people have earned relief, most in the form of pardons, according to a 2021 report by the Wilson Center for Science and Justice and Duke University Law School.
Last March, Cooper commuted the sentences of April Barber, Anthony Willis and Joshua McKay, at the recommendation of the JSRB. By the close of the year, Cooper commuted the sentences of two more people at the recommendation of the JSRB, Donnie Parker and Benjamin Williams.
Barber at 16 gave birth to her son while incarcerated, became a paralegal and published three books. Willis earned five college degrees. McKay was employed as a carpenter and welder in prison. Parker and Williams were consistently employed while in custody, with Williams earning his G.E.D. and taking part in other prison learning programs. All five served 20 years or more in prison. Four out of the five are Black.
Today, Barber, who lives in the Triangle, works as a personal care aide and an advocate for people who have recently been released from prison. Releasing people sentenced to excessive sentences requires those in power to take chances, she said, like Cooper did with her.
“Will everyone turn out like me? Hopefully,” Barber said in a phone interview. The alternative, keeping people incarcerated “20, 30, 40 years is not the answer — that shows no chance of redemption, fairness, or justice,” she added.
When Cooper’s executive order was first issued, Finholt was hoping to see 50 people released. But his expectations have been tempered by the slow process. Now, he believes 20 is more realistic.
“It’s a very, very long road, in North Carolina,” said Elizabeth Simpson, an attorney and the strategic director of Emancipate NC. “The legacy of slavery and racial oppression in the state is very, very deep, and it doesn’t get undone without some long, hard work.”
In December, advocates staged a month-long vigil outside the governor’s mansion in Raleigh to push Cooper to commute more sentences for the nearly 30,000 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons.
On Dec. 20, Cooper announced the commutations of six people, two of whom were recommended for relief by the JSRB.
Advocates say they are also frustrated by the uncertainty and unknown surrounding the clemency process, which Anderson, Jacobs’ mitigation specialist, called a “black hole”; a Duke University law professor called it a “black box.” “That’s where my frustrations are now — it’s just not knowing what to tell people or how to advise folks, or which candidates are going to be viable, and which are long shots,” Finholt said.
According to Anderson there’s been very little feedback from the JSRB, Cooper or the state’s clemency office, in response to Jacobs’ application.
“To submit an application and hear nothing for months and years on end, and then to suddenly see the news that the governor has announced clemencies and not see Chris’s name is just devastating,” Anderson said.
Because Jacobs’ Miller hearing was behind him and he is parole eligible, both Anderson and Jacobs believed Cooper should have even more reason to grant Jacobs relief.
But when his sentence wasn’t commuted in December, Jacobs, like Anderson, was stunned.
“I don’t know what else I can do,” he said in an interview following the announcement. “I don’t really have any expectations going forward.”
Today, Jacobs works as a counselor at the Nash Correctional Institution, helping incarcerated people navigate everything from school to a recent cancer diagnosis.
He’s counseling one incarcerated man filing a request for consideration for clemency from North Carolina’s Juvenile Sentence Review Board.