Crime & Courts

Mecklenburg man arrested as a teen thought he’d be in prison for life. Now, maybe not.

Harry James is 29 years old, and he spent the past nine years expecting he’d be in jail for life.

On Thursday, that changed.

James was charged with murder in May 2006, when he was 16.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police arrested James and a 21-year-old man in connection with the killing of Curtis Jenkins, 29, in north Charlotte. Police said it was a robbery, and the suspects were found driving Jenkins’ car in Kentucky.

In 2010, James was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time, state law required a life-without-parole sentence for people under 18 who were found guilty of first-degree murder.

Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile defendants were a form of cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Then-Gov. Bev Perdue signed legislation to bring North Carolina’s sentencing law in line with that ruling soon after.

James had a resentencing hearing in Mecklenburg County superior court in 2014, but his sentence didn’t change.

He brought his case to the North Carolina Supreme Court, and in 2018, the court ruled that he should have another resentencing.

On Thursday, a Mecklenburg County judge sentenced him to life with the possibility of parole.

The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office didn’t oppose the ruling.

Assistant District Attorney Jay Ashendorf said the district attorney’s office considers each sentencing on its own, and prosecutors examined James’ personal background and his prison record when deciding what to do in this case.

According to current case law, life without parole is reserved for defendants who are “truly incorrigible,” Ashendorf said, and they determined James doesn’t meet that standard.

James’ case was part of a 2018 report from the nonprofit Color of Change, which criticized Mecklenburg prosecutors for pushing for life without parole for juvenile offenders. Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather hadn’t been in office long at the time of the report, and most of the highlighted cases came from his predecessor.

In a statement Thursday, Merriweather wrote that the Supreme Court has set an “extremely high” burden for juvenile life without parole sentences.

Situations where that burden is met will have to be “exceptional,” Merriweather wrote.

Jane Wester is a Charlotte native and has been covering criminal justice and public safety for The Charlotte Observer since May 2017.