Image credit: Zoe Litaker

Why North Carolina keeps many parole-eligible prisoners behind bars

The ceremony took place in a tall concrete room on death row.

Our blue plastic chairs sat in three semicircles before a scarred wooden podium. The front of the podium bore the great seal of North Carolina, with its motto in stark lettering: Esse Quam Videri. To be rather than to seem.

Two Franciscan priests sat in the front row with Michael’s confirmation sponsor. The rest of us watched as Bishop Gossman conveyed a final blessing and anointed Michael with perfumed oil, proclaiming him to be a confirmed Catholic. The moment was a snapshot of his 26 years on death row, an era during which many of us learned from Michael Pinch.

We were relieved when Michael’s death sentence and conviction were overturned in 2005. No one who met the humble, quiet man believed he should be executed. Michael had a stabilizing influence on the row, enough so that even prison officers sought his advice.

Ken Harris, former Central Prison associate warden, used Michael to counsel young troublemakers. “Mike always had something intelligent and beneficial to hear,” Harris told the Greensboro News and Record. “He’d tell them, ‘Look, if you don’t change now, if you don’t get yourself off of drugs and alcohol, if you don’t change your attitudes, you can end up right where I am.’” Harris echoed the sentiment that many officers felt when dealing with Michael. “I’m old-school and hard to fool... But Mike’s above-board. I think the world of him”

Former deputy state attorney general Joan Byers Erwin publicly said in 1996 that Michael Pinch should not be put to death even though it was her job to oppose his appeals and fight for his execution. Erwin had been hearing testimonials about Michael from lawyers and others for 15 years. She said the case did not “have the feel of a death case... The person the jury saw is not the person he really is.”

Convicted and sentenced to death for the 1979 shotgun slayings of 19-year-old Freddie Pacheco and 18-year-old Tommie Ausley at a Greensboro bikers club, Michael Pinch spent a quarter century on death row before an appellate court found the police and prosecutors withheld evidence. They hid the fact that Pacheco and Ausley were small-time drug dealers and that Pacheco had stabbed at least four people. The court acknowledged such information would have helped Pinch’s attorneys prove the murders were not premeditated.

Illustration by Rachel VanHoy.

Rather than retry the case, district attorney Stuart Albright of Guilford County offered a plea instead: plead guilty to one count of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree murder; in exchange, receive a sentence of life with parole.

While Michael was saved from execution, he was still far from freedom. His future depended on navigating North Carolina’s arduous and uncertain parole system.

A narrowing road to redemption

Parole in North Carolina is only an option for crimes committed before October 1, 1994. On that date a new state law, the Structured Sentencing Act, went into effect. The law abolished parole, instituted mandatory minimum sentences, eliminated judicial discretion in sentencing, and made life without parole—or death—a mandatory sentence for first-degree murder.

An earlier law had allowed for parole-eligible life sentences, time off for good behavior, and indeterminate sentencing, but the SSA ended all of that with inflexible, punitive policies. Fortunately for Michael and others sentenced for crimes under the “old law,” the SSA is not retroactive; it cannot affect any crime committed before the date of its enactment.

This is especially important because many death sentences have been commuted to life sentences as a result of successful appeals. After North Carolina reinstated the death penalty in 1976, there were 14 overturned sentences that resulted in life with parole before one execution occurred. Of these people, four were paroled by 2000. The most recent example, James McDowell, was sentenced to death in 1988, resentenced to life with parole in 1991, and paroled in 2018.

No life sentence was ever guaranteed parole, merely the possibility. Even for those who are still parole-eligible, the path to freedom is anything but certain.

Contrary to the popular myth that parole is an automatic exit for these lifers, the North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission has strict guidelines for attaining parole candidacy.

Hoops and high bars

The parole process begins when a person has served their minimum sentence; for Michael Pinch this was 20 years. As soon as his death sentence was converted to life with parole, the Parole Commission assigned a case analyst to research Michael’s file and prison record.

During the initial review stage, the case analyst looks at psychological evaluations, custody level history, visitation history, gang membership (if there is one, whether the prisoner has renounced ties), and home plan. Special weight is also given to the brutality of the crime, whether a prisoner has been convicted of a sex offense, and if he or she ever tried to escape.

No one who met the humble, quiet man believed he should be executed.

Any of these factors can prevent parole and any combination may prevent consideration beyond the first stage of review. Too many infractions in prison is a common reason for rejection. “Write-ups” as we call them, are not always serious; they can include failing a drug test, disobeying a direct order, possession of contraband, and disrespecting staff. Some staff who have a vendetta against prisoners will claim the prisoner broke a rule, process a write-up, and the infraction can prevent parole for another year.

After completing the first stage of review, the parole case analyst makes a written recommendation for or against parole, to be considered by the Parole Commission in secret. Each case analyst is responsible for over 4,000 offenders. Considering that each parole commissioner reviews about 91 cases on a typical day, with as many as 2,000 cases voted on each month, it is hard to believe every case receives a fair hearing.

Commissioners usually vote “no.” On the rare occasions when they allow a review to proceed, commissioners recommend the case analyst “investigate” the prisoner. This is typically when an analyst would determine a prisoner’s level of remorse, rehabilitation, social adjustment, goals, and support on the outside.

If the investigation reveals a promising candidate for parole, the Commission will normally greenlight them for the Mutual Agreement Parole Program. A MAPP contract provides opportunities for community work release, participation in educational or vocational training programs outside of prison, and other programs that prepare incarcerated people for re-entry to society. MAPP is mandatory for parole and lasts one to five years––and that’s after the many years that it takes a parole-eligible lifer to attain a MAPP contract in the first place.

North Carolina’s Parole Commission does not hold parole hearings. When it comes time to make a final decision, each commissioner votes independently, in separate rooms, at differing times of the day. When a lifer is considered for parole, the Parole Commission notifies the prisoner, district attorney where the offender was convicted, the head of the law enforcement agency that arrested the prisoner, any of the victims’ immediate family who requested to be notified, and any media outlets in the county where the prisoner was charged and sentenced.

Lifers who earn release from prison have the lowest recidivism rate of all parolees.

In January, news of Michael’s parole investigation flashed between two longer news segments on National Public Radio, so cursory it would have been easy to miss.

“North Carolina’s Parole Commission is considering whether to release a murderer who spent a quarter century on death row after the shotgun killings of two teenagers at a Greensboro motorcycle club. The parole commission said it could release a 58-year-old Michael Edward Pinch despite the 1979 double murder.”

The broadcaster then announced that Republican state Rep. Phil Berger would seek to prevent Michael’s release. Berger has represented the district where Michael’s case played out since 2000.

It is not uncommon for politicians to interfere with the parole process, as Democratic governor Beverly Perdue did with Bobby Bowden and a few other parole-eligible lifers who were on MAPP contracts in 2009. The governor forced the Parole Commission to halt their release, not because there was a legitimate public safety concern, but because parole-eligibility did not align with her purported belief that “Life means life.” At the same time it came to light that, four years earlier, Perdue had supported the parole of a lifer who had worked in her office while on a MAPP contract. In that moment, constitutional protections were ignored for the sake of politics.

The final hurdle: political whims

The stance that officials like Purdue and Berger have taken is the sort of punitive obstructionism and political grandstanding common to the politics of parole-eligible life sentences. Commissioners often fear losing their jobs for making politically unpopular decisions, especially if they are contrary to the tough on crime rhetoric of elected officials.

This is partly because voters respond less to broad positive reforms in criminal justice, like the national effort to release low-level drug offenders in the “First Step Act” recently signed by the President, and far more to sensationalize crimes.

Unfortunately, the politics of crime do not heed the evidence of sociological research.

The result is a tendency to generalize the outcome of a single released prisoner who goes on to commit a violent crime as indicative of all prisoners if they are given the chance. In reality such outcomes are rare, and even more so among parole-eligible lifers who earn release.

Lifers who earn release from prison have the lowest recidivism rate of all parolees. One Stanford University study of 860 murderers paroled in California found only five returned to prison for new felonies, and none for murder. In 2012, Maryland’s appellate court ruled in Unger v. State that life sentences handed down before 1981 violated due process. As a result, more than 100 lifers have been released, and none have been convicted of a new felony as of 2016.

Unfortunately, the politics of crime do not heed the evidence of sociological research, even as the nation searches for ways to end mass incarceration. Rep. Berger’s decision to interfere with Michael’s release is not based on any evidence he might re-offend, or that the Parole Commission’s process is too lenient; it is simply an extension of his draconian politics.

Parole-eligible lifers approved for release by the Parole Commission should not have to worry whether some politician is going to sabotage their parole, either by leaning on parole commissioners or violating the state constitution.

On May 2, the Parole Commission announced that Michael was approved for a two-year MAPP contract. His scheduled release date is April 25, 2021.

When Michael accepted his plea arrangement it was with the belief he would be paroled some day if he worked hard enough. While on death row he committed himself to making his life count for something. Now that he has spent 40 years in prison, his journey toward freedom should not end. It is time for Rep. Berger and other North Carolina lawmakers to be true representatives of all the people in this state, not just the ones who fit an agenda.

Esse quam videri indeed. 

  • About

    While on death row, Lyle May earned an associates of arts degree from Ohio University. He is currently enrolled in a bachelor's program in criminal justice administration. Lyle has written for The Marshall Project, The J Journal, Prison Writers, and maintains a blog at BeyondSteelDoors.com. You can also find his memoir, Waiting For The Last Train on Amazon.