Murder spree highlighted N.C. parole concerns
A WRAL News investigation found concerns within the state's parole system regarding the time it takes for parole officers to get arrest warrants, as well as a history of rejecting up to half of requests for them.Posted — Updated
He had served eight years in a North Carolina prison for felony breaking and entering and larceny before he was paroled last April.
Nearly three months later, authorities say, he shot five people to death in a six-day killing spree in Gaffney, S.C., before police shot and killed him July 6 while responding to a report of a home burglary.
Burris' case is an example of concerns within the state's parole system, which has a history of taking days to issue arrest warrants, what the system's chief has called standard operating procedure.
Statistics also show a history of denying up to as much as half of parole officers' requests for those warrants.
In Burris's case, his parole officer started the process of revoking his parole on June 4 for violating his release, but it wasn’t until June 15 that the North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission authorized his arrest.
By that time, Burris' parole officer had already had him arrested on a charge of driving without a license. He was on bond when his killing spree began June 27.
It might never be known if any of the slayings could have been prevented, but had the arrest warrant to revoke Burris’ parole been issued earlier, he likely would have been held in jail without bond on the license charge until a hearing.
Since then, the North Carolina Department of Correction has taken steps to reduce the time it takes for the parole commission to authorize arrest warrants.
Division of Community Corrections Director Tim Moose, who oversees the state's probation and parole system, says the number of days in the Burris case was unacceptable.
"We viewed the details of that case – of what happened and the time frames involved – and made some internal changes with our staff and the relationship with the commission," Moose said.
The turnaround time is now usually less than 24 hours, and he expects that time to improve as the department moves to automate the process with new technology.
"I think, system-wide, we're all looking at where we can get improvements and efficiencies," he said. "I think everybody is at the table actively involved in looking at the system and how we can make the improvements needed."
Although the parole commission eventually issued an arrest warrant in Burris' case, a high number of warrants that could send people back to prison are often rejected, according to figures from the Division of Community Corrections.
In the 2003-04 fiscal year, for example, the parole commission denied 52 percent of the 824 requests for warrants.
Over the years, those numbers have decreased. Forty-seven percent of requests in 2005-06 were denied; 36 percent in 2006-07, and i32 percent in 2008-09.
Data for 2009-10 is incomplete, but as of October 2009, the commission had authorized arrest warrants of 65 percent of the 388 requests for warrants from parole officers across the state.
Neither the warrants nor the parole commission's reasons for rejecting them are public record. Commissioners on the three-member panel have not responded to requests for comment, and new parole commission Chairman Tony Rand, a former state legislator, will not comment.
WRAL News, however, was able to obtain information about several cases where violent offenders committed crimes but the commission denied parole officers' requests to revoke parole or supervised release.
In one, Roy Vanhook was released from prison after serving time on assault charges. He was re-arrested for assault and strangulation charges, but his post-release supervision was not revoked.
Vanhook ultimately ended up serving time for the new crimes, but the point that many parole officers make is that offenders can often make bond while they are awaiting trial on new charges.
By going through the process of revoking parole and post-release supervision, time can be added to any new potential sentence, and the offender can be held in jail.
Such cases are a source of frustration for parole officers, says Vernon Bryant, who recently retired as a district probation and parole manager.
"Some would say, 'It's just not worth our time in pursing it, because we know what the end result is going to be,'" Bryant said.
Part of that frustration, he says, has to do with the process.
Probation-parole officers are authorized to arrest offenders on probation, parole or supervised release, but obtaining arrest warrants for probation violators is easier, Bryant says.
One reason is because an officer can go to a judge or magistrate in his or her district and request the warrant. To revoke parole or supervised release, officers must get the arrest warrant from the parole commission in Raleigh, regardless of where the parole officer is.
"It's just more hoops to jump through with parole as opposed to probation," Bryant said. "Probation is more of a local thing, where you can easily get access to the judges and your chief probation office."
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