LUMBERTON — A 20-year-old whose murder trial is set to begin in August and four people convicted of first-degree murder in Robeson County could be affected by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that courts cannot automatically give sentences of life without parole to minors.
The ruling does not prevent minors from being sentenced to life without parole, but it requires that the judicial system consider factors that argue for reduction of punishment, and that sentences of life without parole being served by those who were convicted of committing first-degree murder under the age of 18 should go under review for re-sentencing.
A bill approved by the General Assembly last week will introduce the lesser sentence of life with parole, with parole being an option after 25 years of a sentence is served. The bill awaits the signature of Gov. Beverly Perdue.
In North Carolina, the sentence of life without parole has been the only option for those convicted of first-degree murder under the age of 18 since 2005, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling declared it unconstitutional to execute someone for a crime that was committed when the defendant was younger than 18 years old.
James Ezra White goes on trial on August 20 in Robeson County Superior Court for the June 27, 2009, murder of 37-year-old Dwight Jordan. White was 17 at the time of the Jordan was killed.
“Based on this decision, if he is convicted of first-degree murder, we don’t know what his sentence will be at this point,” said District Attorney Johnson Britt.
Eighty-eight people now serving life in prison in North Carolina could be affected by the ruling. Four of them are from Robeson County.
Britt said the ruling has not yet provided direction as to how to handle the re-sentencing of those who have been convicted.
The ruling affects the case of a man whose sentence was lessened once before, following the 2005 Supreme Court ruling. Travis Walters, who was 17 when he shot and killed Betty Jane Oxendine during a robbery of Hardee’s on West Fifth Street on Jan. 6, 1998, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2001. He was re-sentenced to life without parole in 2009.
The ruling could also affect the sentences for the following convicted murderers with ties to Robeson County:
— George Lesane, who was sentenced to life without parole at the age of 17 for the 1994 murder of Larry McCormick at a bus stop.
— Danny Wade Lewis, who was convicted of stabbing 72-year-old Erma Hester 88 times in her home on Sept. 2, 2002, just before his 17th birthday.
— Jamie Daquon Lowery, who was convicted of robbing and killing 56-year-old civic leader Al Parnell on July 2, 2008. Lowery was 16 years old at the time.
All of the cases will be sent back for re-sentencing and may involve a jury, but it “won’t be a trial based on guilt or evidence,” Britt said.
The sentence will be re-issued based on mitigating factors, such as if the defendant played a passive or minor role in the crime or had a mental deficiency; or on aggravating factors, including the determination of whether the defendant played a leadership role in the crime, if the defendant was hired or paid to do the crime, or if the crime was especially heinous or cruel, Britt said.