Pro bono initiative helps gain clemency for man given life sentence as teen
A North Carolina man sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile was released from prison on March 24 after Adelyn Curran ’22, working with Clinical Professor Jamie Lau ’09, successfully petitioned the governor for a commutation.
On March 10, Gov. Roy Cooper issued grants of executive clemency for three men who were sentenced to 20 or more years for crimes committed as juveniles, including Anthony Willis. Curran, a member of Duke Law’s pro bono NC Clemency Project, which has since been renamed the Juvenile Sentence Review Board Clemency Project, prepared the materials for Willis’s clemency petition. Willis received a sentence of life in prison without parole in 1997 for killing a Fayetteville store owner when he was 16.
Two weeks after Cooper announced the commutations, Willis walked out of Gaston Correctional Center in Dallas, N.C., where he had spent 25 years. Arms upraised and flanked by a beaming Curran and Lau, he walked away from the prison gates and into a waiting crowd of family and friends.
Lau, who leads the project, said that Willis had earned his second chance and was prepared to make the most of it.
“[The governor’s] decision recognizes that the interests of justice include mercy for people who have demonstrated rehabilitation while incarcerated,” he said.
Willis had worked diligently to change from the person he was at 16, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees while incarcerated and learning sign language to assist an incarcerated deaf person, Lau said, noting that more than 30 people attested to “the kind and humble person” he has become.
Added Curran: “During his 25 years of incarceration Mr. Willis has made an impact on every person he’s met, at every prison he’s been to, and he has built dozens and dozens of close friendships. He is an extraordinary person and I feel lucky to know him.”
Another of the three commutations, the first in North Carolina since 2009, had a Duke Law connection; Joshua McKay, who also was released on March 24, was represented by Johanna Jennings ’11, founder and director of The Decarceration Project, a Durham-based nonprofit.
During his 20 years in prison McKay, incarcerated at 17, completed two apprenticeships to become a journeyman carpenter and welder and earned the right to live in minimum custody and participate in work release. Nine of his supervisors wrote letters in support of his clemency petition.
Willis’s release is Curran’s second successful effort on behalf of a client facing a life sentence, and the fifth release facilitated by student members of the clemency initiative, which Lau launched in January 2020 to identify people who have served a substantial amount of their sentence and whose demonstrable rehabilitation and lack of infractions in prison qualify them for clemency. The project became a formal student group under his supervision, focusing on cases in which individuals were tried and sentenced in adult criminal court for acts committed before they were 18.
Student volunteers interview the clemency candidates, prison officials, family members, and other supporters. They then prepare memos on each case which are reviewed by attorneys affiliated with the Law School’s Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility and then turned into petitions submitted to Cooper’s Clemency Office.
Willis’s release is the first commutation the project has secured from the governor, while the first four involved other pathways to release. Curran and Kate Goldberg ’22 helped Calrutha Johnson gain release in 2020 by arguing that he had not had a single infraction during his 31-year incarceration, had earned a bachelor’s degree, and was particularly vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19 due to a pre-existing medical condition and his inability to take essential precautionary measures in prison.
In another case, Edward Scott was released in June 2020 after the state reviewed materials prepared by Angela Sbano ’22 that documented Scott’s successful completion of a GED and multiple self-help programs over 29 years in prison. His petition was referred to the parole commission, which approved his accelerated release. Another client gained release with the assistance of Michael Chen ’21.
The Juvenile Sentence Review Board Clemency Project received the North Carolina Bar Association’s 2022 Law Student Group Pro Bono Service Award.