Anthony Willis is now at large, nearly 27 years after the murder of Benjamin Miller, owner of Uncle Ben’s former out-of-town store on the outskirts of Fayetteville.
Willis has been at large since March 24, two weeks after Gov. Roy Cooper pardoned him and two others. All three were minors when they were sentenced to at least 20 years in prison. Willis was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In 1996, Willis was only 16 years old when he entered Uncle Ben’s store with a gun in his pocket. He said he didn’t mean to kill Miller. He just wanted to rob the store so he could have enough money to get his speakers out of the mortgage.
But as Miller reached for something behind the counter, Willis fired his gun, hitting Miller in the head and leaving him for dead. Willis was quickly caught, convicted, and sentenced.
Not so long ago, it was almost unthinkable to believe that Willis would not die in prison. Two years before he was sentenced, the state passed the Structured Sentencing Act of 1994, which gave little leeway in sentencing.
The United States remains the only country that sentences people to life in prison without parole for crimes committed before they turn 18. But recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, based on a wealth of research on adolescent brain development, have resulted in commutations and pardons for juvenile offenders. in North Carolina and across the country.
Duke University involvement
The Willis case has been at the center of several juvenile sentences that have been commuted in that state. His release from prison was made possible in large part by the work of the Duke University School of Law; Duke Professor Jamie Lau, head of the North Carolina pardon project; and Adeline Curran, a former Duke law student who volunteered for a pro bono pardon project.
Lau said Willis was brought to his attention by the late Anthony Spearman, the former head of the NAACP chapter in North Carolina. At the time, Lau said, he was looking for inmates for the North Carolina pardon project who had served significant time and had shown a clear path to rehabilitation. Now, he said, these prisoners would find him.
“When Reverend Spearman brought Anthony to my attention, I highlighted a couple of things: First, I mean he had a rehab experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen: (college) diplomas, work inside the prison walls, who, you know, enlisted the support of people who were correctional officers who usually
one way or another would not support a man for pardon.
“So given the history of rehab, it was clear that he was someone we wanted to hang out with and see if we could help.” Willis becomes a model prisoner.
Anthony Willis has not always been a model prisoner. According to him, when he was behind bars, he was still an embittered teenager, filled with anger, fear and hatred. Speaking on the phone from his new rented home in Charlotte, Willis said it took about three years, newfound faith in God and the support of volunteers in public prisons to start finding a way forward.
Perhaps it would be easier not to try at all. What hope can there be for a teenager sitting in prison with a life sentence and no chance of parole?
But Willis persevered. He said that he received one higher education after another – five in total, including a master’s degree. He learned sign language to help a deaf prisoner. He volunteered to work individually with other prisoners. He held seminars and staged plays. The other prisoners began to call him Smiley because he was rarely seen without his wide toothy grin.
The wisdom that the volunteers had passed on to Willis was now paying off a man who seemed to have nothing but his own self-esteem.
Although Willis did not realize it at the time, there was another reason.
“I took the advice because it was the first thing that allowed the governor to choose me for my release. Because if I did everything that everyone around is doing, I would still be in prison. ,” he said.
While outside, Willis dedicates much of his life to getting back to prison and teaching others to follow the same path. history. Cottle is among those who believe that the brain does not reach full maturity until the mid-20s and that Willis’ distinguished record in prison suggests he has been exonerated.
“Some people might say, ‘Oh, I’m going to be in this program, or in this class, or get this certification, so, you know, it’s going to look good when I go to the parole board,'” Cottle said. “(Willis) didn’t have that opportunity. He just did it anyway. So without that – I hope so – it makes it more impressive.”
Willis becomes the first case
Lau, a Duke University professor and head of the North Carolina pardon project, began working with Willis long before Cooper signed into law the Juvenile Sentence Review Board in April 2021. a package that included over 30 clemency recommendations on behalf of Willis.
“As this package was being finalized — it was literally in near final form for the Governor’s Office of Pardons — when the Juvenile Sentence Review Board was created by Governor’s Executive Order, it was kind of a glimmer of hope for us, because we knew that he was convicted of a crime he committed as a teenager and thought it was the perfect case to revisit,” Lau said.
The Willis case was given a number—JSRB 001—as the first review board case.
“It was reviewed and the Juvenile Sentence Review Board recommended that the Governor commute Anthony’s sentence, and he received that commutation in March 2022,” Lau said.
Willis’ lenient sentence follows a long string of Supreme Court decisions since 2005 finding that “children are constitutionally different from adults in terms of their degree of guilt.”
In 2018, Jim Ammons, Senior Permanent Justice of the Cumberland County Superior Court, responded to these decisions and re-sentenced Willis, making him eligible for parole. Another four years passed before his sentence was commuted.
When Willis got out of prison, he went to live with a pastor and his wife, Thomas and Sharon Berger, who helped him get a job and get back on his feet. He now lives in Charlotte, in his own apartment. He just bought a new car.
Willis said he now has the equivalent of three jobs. He works remotely full time as an administrative assistant for a telecommunications company. He said he works part-time for a group called the NC Cure, which advocates for prisoners. It also provides transportation for people to and from the memory center. He also said he volunteers once a month at a homeless shelter, shares his story at churches, and returns to the prison where he last stayed to cheer on inmates.
“It’s so humiliating because every time I go back to the prison, even though I can’t go inside, I can go to the gate and they’re all standing at the gate shouting my name. And you just see how grateful they are that they are not forgotten,” Willis said. “I’m not doing this for praise. My goal is for them to see that when they are released, they can do the same. We must not forget these people.”
Willis said his next goal is to start a nonprofit he plans to call the Smiley Vision Initiative. He said the organization would help people coming out of prison to reintegrate into society.
“Teens are impulsive by nature”
Cottle, a forensic psychologist, says research shows that a minor who has committed a heinous crime can change.
“Teens are impulsive by nature,” Cottle said. “They are more emotional, their decisions are more based on emotions, and this is directly related to the science of the brain.”
Cottle said that a teenager’s frontal lobe is not activated and used as effectively as it is in a person in their early 20s. They are less likely to rely on rational decisions and are more influenced by their peers, she says.
“This does not mean that they are completely incapable of understanding what they are doing and completely dependent on emotions or something else,” Cottle said.
“But that means they are less capable of this kind of reasoning than adults.”
In several U.S. Supreme Court cases, judges have ruled that “children are constitutionally distinguished from adults by the level of their guilt” and that the most severe punishment should be applied “to the rarest juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”
Little risk of reoffending
In North Carolina, 95 juveniles have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, said Ben Finholt, director of the Fair Sentence Project at Duke University Law School. Of these 95, 88 remain in prison.
Only one North Carolina man has ever been sentenced to life without parole: Colanda Wooten served 19 years for her role as a 17-year-old in a Wayne County murder. Her sentence was commuted in December before serving her term.
Willis was re-sentenced to life in prison with parole four years before he received a reduced sentence.
Research indicates that Willis and Wooten are unlikely to commit crime again. A study by Montclair State University in New Jersey found that only six of 174 juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole in Philadelphia were re-arrested after their release. Of those six, four were cleared of charges.
By comparison, the study notes that approximately 30% of those accused of murder are rearrested within two years of their release. Another 2020 study by Finholt and others shows that North Carolina is among the nine states with the most life sentences without parole for juveniles.
The study, titled “Juvenile Life Without Parole in North Carolina,” looked at 94 juvenile cases that had received life sentences without parole in that state. At the conclusion of the study, 48 people remained on life sentences without parole, and 45 people were re-sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
According to the study, 81% of those given life sentences without parole were black, which the study called “grossly disparate”.
The study also found that Cumberland County led the state in the number of life sentences without parole (JLWOP) in the state between 1994 and 2018. The study notes that the number of such convictions in the state is rapidly declining, in part due to recent decisions by the US Supreme Court.
“At a time when JLWOP sentencing is not allowed in any other country in the world and when JLWOP sentencing has dropped significantly in the US, it is time to reconsider the use of JLWOP where it remains, as many states have already done. ‘, the study concludes.