Goldsboro, N.C. — A Goldsboro man on Thursday became the 17th prisoner to avoid the death penalty under a 2001 state law that prohibits the execution of mentally retarded prisoners.
Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones vacated the death sentence of Marvin Williams, 50, who was convicted of murdering Theron Price in 1989 during a robbery at the company where both men worked.
The law defines mental retardation as having an IQ below 70 and shows poor basic life skills. Williams has repeatedly scored below that on multiple tests.
"This is not something that I took lightly, nor do I take it lightly now," Jones said of his ruling. "This is what the law requires."
Williams was resentenced to life in prison on the murder charge and a 30-year consecutive sentence for a related burglary conviction.
Because he was sentenced under old structured sentencing guidelines, he can petition for parole in February 2016.
In 1994, state law eliminated the possibility of parole on a life sentence. However, the parole commission is obligated to parole offenders who were sentenced under the previous guidelines.
"He's mentally retarded. He'll commit murder, we know," Price's nephew, Jerry Price, said. "The public has a huge concern that, potentially in four years, he will be back on the street. The fact that he's given this opportunity is a disgrace."
None of the 16 inmates taken off death row under the mental retardation statute have been released from prison.
The law also applies to other states, since the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision, after North Carolina's law passed, banning the execution of people with mental retardation.
The legal battle became an emotional one Monday as Price's family sat on one side of the courtroom, hoping for what they see as justice, while Williams' family sat on the other side, hoping that his life would be spared.
Price's family and other said they are concerned that many judges are rubber-stamping the issue, simply letting people off death row.
Attorneys who defend death row inmates say that's not the case.
Defense attorney Glen Barfield argued Monday that Williams met both of the law's criteria for mental retardation at the time of the murder.
Prosecutor Branny Vickory argued that Williams knew exactly what he was doing when he repeatedly hit Price over the head, dragged his body into a nearby shed and tried to get into the company's safe with a blow torch.