ROCKINGHAM — Convicted killer Derrick McRae seems to be sitting through the parole hearing that his life sentence guaranteed he’d never have.
Appearing on McRae’s behalf in Richmond County Superior Court on Tuesday, lawyers for the Wrongful Convictions Clinic of the Duke University School of Law presented three questions to Judge David Lee:
⦁ Should the court vacate McRae’s sentence of life without parole, handed down in 1998 in the killing of Jeremy Lee Rankin? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that sentencing teenagers to life without parole could be considered cruel and unusual and, thus, unconstitutional. If Lee agrees to re-sentence McRae — found guilty of a crime committed when he was 16 — the decision likely would be one of the first in the country following the Supreme Court ruling.
⦁ Would a new sentencing hearing be effective, considering dimmed memories and a lack of documentation that has plagued the case from the beginning?
⦁ Should McRae be able to pursue a claim that counsel in his first two murder trials was ineffective? Held within days of each other, the first trial resulted in a hung jury, the second in a conviction.
Judge Lee delayed consideration of the third issue, leaving the Duke team and District Attorney Reese Saunders to focus on how to handle possible re-sentencing and the key question of the day:
Could Derrick McRae function outside prison?
“I think he could easily be managed in a community,” testified forensic psychiatrist Sally Johnson of the University of North Carolina Department of Psychiatry, and the UNC and Duke law schools.
“Almost everybody does get released from prison eventually,” she said — with the proper medication, social service support and drug monitoring.
“It is not a perfect system, … but this is the plight of anyone who is mentally ill.”
McRae was sentenced to life in prison without parole, despite a lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime he was accused of committing at age 16. A 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of automatically sentencing juveniles to life without parole spurred the legal action resulting in Tuesday’s hearing.
Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy referred to such sentences for juveniles as potentially unconstitutional. States could remedy the potential injustice, he wrote, not by re-sentencing the defendants but by allowing for the possibility of parole.
Tuesday’s hearing was the eventual result of a 2013 filing by Duke’s Jamie Lau of a motion for “appropriate relief” for McRae. The goal: to have McRae’s conviction overturned.
Lau represented McRae in an evidentiary hearing supporting that motion in late 2014. Also presiding at that hearing, Judge Lee scheduled Tuesday’s session as a result.
In court Tuesday, Lau called witnesses who testified:
⦁ that records of McRae’s struggles with mental health went astray while being scanned for storage;
⦁ that documentation of his school attendance and discipline were spotty because record-keeping varied by school and by educator; and
⦁ that most of the teachers with whom McRae was supposed to have had contact could remember him only barely, if at all.
All of that testimony, presumably, supported the defense contention that the original trial was plagued by a lack of physical evidence and by faulty record-keeping.
His testimony bridging the lunch hour, prison psychologist Kevin O’Brien seemed to open the character-driven testimony by deeming McRae likable and compliant. McRae took his anti-psychotic medications for schizophrenia, held down a job as an orderly assisting medically needy patients and presented no threat of harm to others, O’Brien said.
Both O’Brien and Dr. Johnson said McRae could function outside prison if he had enough support. Both also alluded to his delusions — McRae wants to design rockets for NASA, Johnson said — but testified that he wasn’t dangerous to himself or others.
During Tuesday’s hearing, McRae — now 38 — flashed smiles and thumbs up to a handful of relatives sitting behind the defense table. A small man in a checked polo shirt, he was sometimes dwarfed by his three-person defense team, who bent close to whisper to him during the hearing.
His demeanor was in direct contrast to what he evidenced during his trials: a blank look the defense said resulted from altering McRae’s medication and the prosecution called the sign of a lack of remorse.
The hearing is expected to conclude Thursday.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673.