BUNN, N.C. — As a teenager, Johnny Beck Jr. played Super Nintendo and looked up to Michael Jordan. He also looked up to the neighborhood drug dealers, who had clothes and cars that he and his siblings could only dream of — and that landed him behind bars for life.
At 16, Beck shot another teen — an alleged drug rival — in the head. By 17, Beck was serving a sentence of life without parole for murder.
“I didn’t even think it was an option,” he said recently, recalling the moment the judge pronounced his punishment. “And then I heard my mom crying in the courtroom.”
Beck, now 38 and imprisoned at Franklin Correctional Center, is one of 67 former teen offenders in North Carolina serving life without parole, even after after U.S. Supreme Court decisions ordered states to reconsider whether young people should be sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives. Six of those 67 were resentenced to the same terms after the Supreme Court move.
Although he long maintained his innocence, Beck now admits he shot 16-year-old Samuel Gregory in a Raleigh apartment in 1995. He says he knows he must be punished but that he’s not the same person he was then.
“The crime is very serious,” he said told the AP as attorney Chris Mumma sat beside him. “But to say someone should spend the rest of their life in prison when they were 16 years old, you’re basically saying that person has no more redeeming qualities.”
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile homicide offenders. Last year, it said the decision applied to more than 2,000 inmates already serving those terms nationwide, bringing new sentences and freedom for some.
“I think there’s been … an increased awareness that what we might call depravity in an adult might be depravity in a juvenile — but it also may be just a juvenile who is not fully formed yet,” said Ben Finholt, staff attorney with N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, which received a grant to study the cases.
After the 2012 court ruling, state lawmakers mandated a new sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 25 years for youthful offenders convicted of murder but who were not the actual killer. In cases where the juvenile was the killer, courts must hold sentencing hearings to consider mitigating circumstances such as age, immaturity and familial strife.
At the time of the Supreme Court ruling, 90 North Carolina inmates had been sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole for offenses they committed as juveniles, according to Finholt’s organization. Since then, three more people who committed crimes as juveniles have been sentenced to life without parole.
After case reviews, six got life without parole again, Finholt said, while 24 are now serving sentences ranging from 25-years-to-life to 63-years-to-life.
Another juvenile lifer negotiated a reduction to second-degree murder and now has a shot at parole. And one youthful offender was granted a new trial, although the state has appealed.
So far, none has been released; the rest await resentencing hearings.
After the first U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012, Beck petitioned for a new sentence but was denied. Mumma is exploring a renewed request under the 2016 ruling. If that fails, Beck will be entitled to judicial review after serving 25 years — another three years away.
According to court records, Gregory was talking on the phone when Beck walked up behind him and shot him in the back of the head. The medical examiner said Gregory was shot a second time as he lay mortally wounded on the floor.
Before Beck’s arrest, his father was a co-defendant in the case of Greg Taylor, the first man freed and declared innocent by North Carolina’s unique Innocence Inquiry Commission. Authorities eventually dropped the murder charges against the elder Beck; the same detective who investigated the father’s case also investigated the son’s.
Sitting in a prison classroom, Beck Jr. reflected on how the wrongful case against his father helped dismantle his family life. Still, he knows none of it excuses Gregory’s murder.
“I take full responsibility for it,” he said. “It’s the worst thing that you can do. Like, you steal someone’s property, you can give it back. You hurt somebody, the wounds eventually heal. But when you take somebody’s life … there’s nothing you can do.
The prosecutor who handled the case against Beck, Frank Jackson, said he always offered plea bargains to juveniles charged with serious crimes. In Beck’s case, that would have meant an offer of second-degree murder.
He said he believes that Beck Jr. could have changed behind bars.
“People grow up,” said Jackson, who now represents defendants in criminal court. “He was a child almost. I hope he’s become a good man.”
He added that sentence of life without parole is different for a teenager than for someone in their 30s: “In my personal opinion, that’s more than enough,” he said, “but I’m not sure what the appropriate sentence should be.”
The AP was unable to reach Gregory’s family.
Beck said he knows there are those who won’t accept that he’s changed, but he points to the classes he’s taken while in prison — automotive, business, anger management, character — without expectation of a reduced sentence.
“So whether I’m in here or out there, my goal is to be a better person,” he said. “But I would love to get a chance to show people that I’m not the same person that I was then.”
Waggoner reported from Raleigh, N.C.
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