North Carolina rapists, killers freed as impacts of 1993 sentencing reform realized

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GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – The little white house tucked into the bend of Rose Street has remained untouched since September 10, 1993; the night a man from across the street slipped over to Muriel Lee Guin’s home and murdered her.

Merle Lee Guin was 84 years old when Tony D. Hartsell entered her home and beat and stabbed her to death on Sept. 10, 1993. Hartsell was released form prison on parole March 1, 2021.

The beating was so severe Guin’s family said they couldn’t recognize the 84-year-old victim.

Guin’s family said the death investigation showed she was strangled, beaten and documented 44 stab wounds. Guin’s sister-in-law found her body on a couch in a pool of blood inside her Rose Street home on Sept. 12, 1993.

It took three days for investigators to find the killer and they didn’t have to look far. Officers arrested Guin’s then-31 year old across-the-street neighbor, Tony Hartsell. The facts of the murder were so egregious, it took the Gaston County District Attorney just two weeks to announce his intent to seek the death penalty in Hartsell’s prosecution.

“He’s a violent man and it was a senseless killing and he shouldn’t be able to walk free. He should never be able to walk free and we need to be protected and society needs to be protected from somebody like this,” Donna Avagliano told FOX46.

Avagliano is Guin’s niece.

Avagliano went to Guin’s home on Sept. 11 – the day after the murder – to plant flowers in a cast iron potbelly cauldron. Guin typically spent Saturdays on lunch outings with family so Avagliano didn’t find it odd that she never saw her aunt while she was there.

“When I got here and she didn’t answer the door, I thought nothing of it. I just went ahead and planted the flowers like I told her I would,” Avagliano said. “I didn’t know that she was in there, that she had been murdered.”

Avagliano did see a familiar face watching her from a porch across the street. Hartsell walked out of his house when Avagliano arrived.

“I noticed that he came out on his porch and I waved at him,” Avagliano said. She thought nothing of it at the time, but said Hartsell never left the porch and every time she looked over, they’d lock eyes. Avagliano said she later wondered if Hartsell was watching and waiting to see the reaction when Guin’s body was eventually discovered.

Avagliano’s brother, Steve Guin, went to the house that day to mow his aunt’s yard. It was something he did for her weekly and has continued to do after moving into his aunt’s home following the murder.

He, too, never went inside.

Guin’s family described her as a committed religious woman. When she didn’t show up at the Second Baptist Church in Mt. Holly Sunday morning, the family knew something was wrong.

“Mother tried to call her Saturday night and she didn’t answer, and she tried to call Sunday morning and she had to come over here to check and then she found her,” Avagliano said. The elderly woman’s body was slumped over on a couch inside and covered in blood. Her face showed signs of a brutal beating and her back and hip bones were broken, according to the family.

“This is a man who walked across the street and woke up this elderly lady because he knew she would open the door and she trusted him because she knew he was a neighbor that was renting the house across the street from her and he had a small child that she would bake for,” Avagliano told FOX46.

Hartsell was booked into the Gaston County jail on Sept. 15, 1993; the day Guin’s family buried her. Hartsell would spend only 22 days in jail after a judge ruled investigators did not yet have enough evidence to continue holding him.

Hartsell remained free for the next 90 days.  

On Jan. 3, 1994 – four months after the murder – Hartsell was arrested again. This time the county grand jury indicted him on first-degree burglary and first-degree murder charges after DNA test results were completed, finding Hartsell’s DNA and blood inside the crime scene.

Investigators found Hartsell tried to wash blood off his hands inside the home, according to the family. That move, they said, left investigators – and the jury – no doubt about who committed the murder.

This handwritten note from the jury foreman in the Tony Hartsell trial shows the majority of jurors wanted the death penalty as punishment. Unable to agree on the death penalty, Hartsell was sentenced to life in prison. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

What Guin’s family never found out was what led Hartsell to cross the street in the middle of the night and kill the elderly woman.  

Hartsell’s trial started in September 1995 and three weeks later he was found guilty of first-degree murder. Court records reviewed by FOX46 do not show a conviction on the burglary charge.

A handwritten note tucked inside Hartsell’s case file shows the jury ran into a problem during the penalty phase of the trial. We’re “at an impasse,” jury foreman Page Carver wrote in the note to the judge. It would take a unanimous decision by the jury before the state could sentence Hartsell to die for his crimes.

Under North Carolina’s law, the judge had no choice but to sentence Hartsell to life in prison. Guin’s family didn’t realize the life sentence wasn’t a guarantee Hartsell would die in prison. The state’s Fair Sentencing law in place at the time granted convicts like Hartsell parole eligibility after 20 years.

After serving 25 years in prison, 61-year-old Tony D. Hartsell became a free man on March 1, 2021.

“25 years does not equal life”

Muriel Guin’s family spent the past decade pleading with the North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission to keep Tony Hartsell locked away for the rest of his natural life.

Multiple trips to testify before the commission in Raleigh, petitions, and dozens of letters to the commission seemed to do the trick as twice before the commission declined to parole Hartsell in both 2014 and 2017.

This conviction record shows the life sentence handed down to Tony Hartsell in the September 1993 murder of Muriel Guin in Mt. Holly. The Guin family recently learned “life” didn’t mean natural life when their 84-year-old aunt was murdered in her Rose Street home. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

Last fall, Guin’s family lost its fight to keep Hartsell in prison. “We knew something was wrong,” Avagliano told FOX46, “We’d usually hear back from the parole board within a few weeks. This time they put us off for a few months and we knew something was up.”

On March 1, the four-member commission voted to grant Hartsell parole, freeing the convicted killer.

“I was absolutely shocked,” jury foreman Page Carver told FOX46, describing her reaction at hearing the news Hartsell was set free. Carver was a school principal at the time she was picked to serve on Hartsell’s jury for the October 1995 death penalty trial.

“This was a slam dunk and not a hard decision to make. We had so much evidence and it was horrid the things he did to her,” Carver said as she tried to make sense of why the parole commission would set Hartsell free when the jury thought he’d never see the outside of a prison again.

Carver said she and the other jurors were under the impression their vote failure to agree on the death penalty would mean Hartsell would die in prison.

Donna Avagliano led her family’s nearly decade-long fight to keep convicted killer Tony D. Hartsell in prison for the rest of his life. Avagliano lost her fight on March 1, 2021 when the NC parole commission paroled Hartsell after 25 years in prison. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

Avagliano said she never heard the judge instruct the jury of the parole eligibility component before sending the jury back to deliberate the penalty phase of the trial, “I think that the jurors who agreed that he was guilty, gave him life because to them, life meant life. Just like I thought life meant life. I thought he would die in prison.”

“He walked in that house. And then he started beating on her, stabbing her and I can only imagine what she had to endure before she finally collapsed and didn’t realize what else was happening to her,” Avagliano told FOX46. “You can’t repair that. That’s a damaged mind. And I don’t think it’s repairable. And I don’t think he deserves to walk the streets.”

“You don’t think 25 years in prison fixed that,” FOX46 Chief Investigator Jody Barr asked Avagliano in an interview at Guin’s home this week. “No. No. And I don’t think another 25 would fix it,” she said.

Had Hartsell committed the murders just 14 months later, he likely would’ve died in prison. In 1993, the North Carolina legislature revised the state’s Fair Sentencing law with a law known as Structured Sentencing, essentially banning parole for life sentence offenders like Hartsell.

That law didn’t go into effect until Oct. 1, 1994; 14 months after Guin’s murder and didn’t apply to Hartsell’s conviction.

1,300 more eligible

Since March 1, the NC parole commission’s freed and opened parole reviews into 17 killers and rapists in the Charlotte area. All 17 were sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed before Oct. 1, 1994.

As of June 16, the commission freed six murderers and two convicted rapists originally handed life sentences.

A Mecklenburg County judge sentenced Jervon K. Wilks to life in prison after his 1993 conviction. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

One included Jervon K. Wilks of Charlotte, who the parole commission freed on March 24 after the commission voted to prematurely end his life sentence for sexually abusing a 7-year-old “behaviorally and emotionally handicapped boy,” a court filing shows.

The victim lived with Wilks’ family in Charlotte at the time. Wilks was 31 years old when he committed the crime in July 1991.

A Mecklenburg County jury found Wilks guilty of two counts of taking indecent liberties with a child, one count of first-degree sex offense and one count of attempted first-degree sexual offense. On April 19, 1993, the judge sentenced Wilks to life in a NC prison.

Wilks appealed his conviction two years later but lost when the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the conviction. Since losing the appeal, Wilks served prison time at the state prison in Stanly County.

After serving a total of 27 years, Wilks was set free on March 29, 2021 according to the NC prison inmate database. The state’s sex offender registry shows Wilks, now 61, registered at an address in Stanly County.

NC sex offender registry records show Jervon K. Wilks, 61, was released from his life sentence in March and he now lives in a Stanly County, NC apartment complex. (Source: NCDPS)

State prison records show 1,303 current offenders with Fair Sentencing Act life sentences. All are parole eligible at this point unless an offender has more than one life sentence running consecutively.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety did not provide the number of offenders freed statewide in the past year who were sentenced under the Fair Sentencing Act when requested by FOX46 last week.

Our review of the state’s Fair Sentencing parole cases included only those offenders whose convictions happened inside counties within the Charlotte viewing area.

The state’s parole commission is comprised of four commissioners, each appointed by the governor. State law keeps the work behind the commission’s decision-making and deliberations secret, according to NCDPS Spokesman Greg Thomas.

There is little transparency with the public’s ability to investigate individual parole cases like the 17 in the Charlotte area since March 1. We filed a request for the commission’s vote record but were denied with Thomas claiming statutory-mandated confidentiality regarding that information.

“The parole commissioners are not available for an interview, and it’s important to note that the work of the North Carolina Post-Release and Parole Commission is confidential,” Thomas wrote to FOX46 in a response to a request to interview the commissioners about their decision to release Hartsell.

State law requires the commission to allow “registered victims and interested parties” to testify before the commission when a convict is being considered for parole. The state’s 1981 – 1994 Fair Sentencing law requires the commission to review an offender for possible parole whose crimes occurred between 1981 and 1994.

But the law does not require the commission to grant parole.

There are four legal reasons the commission can deny parole. One of those reasons is if the commission “believes” the release of a convict “would duly depreciate the seriousness of his crime,” according to North Carolina General Statute 15A.

Guin’s family believes the commission’s decision to free Hartsell depreciated the life he took in 1993.

Hartsell’s Preventable Parole

“Prior to 1994, the legislature’s feeling was that there was a chance of redemption, and that there should be; you should have an opportunity to serve your sentence and be released,” Asheville-based criminal defense attorney Sean Devereux told FOX46.

Devereux, who’s practiced law for 43 years and defended clients facing the death penalty, outlined four purposes of sentencing in NC: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation and retribution. He believes prior to 1994 the state believed violent offenders could be rehabilitated, which was the basis for allowing offenders a chance at parole.

DATECOUNTYDEFENDANTCHARGE(S)SENTENCE
3/1/2021GastonTony D. Hartsell1st degree murder
1st degree burglary
Life
3/2/2021GastonRobert Turner1st degree rapeLife
3/16/2021CabarrusDonald R. Burris2nd degree murderLife
3/16/2021MecklenburgWilliam D. Williams2nd degree murderLife
3/16/2021MecklenburgAlbert E. Dodd1st degree murderLife
3/22/2021ClevelandJames D. Hill1st degree burglary
2nd degree murder
2nd degree rape
100 years
3/24/2021MecklenburgJervon K. Wilks2 counts 1st degree sex offense
2 counts indecent liberties with child
Life
4/16/2021CatawbaSylvester Crawford1st degree rapeLife
4/19/2021GastonBrian D. Worthy1st degree murderLife
4/27/2021MecklenburgHazel L. Edgeworth1sr degree sex offenseLife
5/5/2021MecklenburgMichael L. Grisson2nd degree murderLife
5/7/2021CatawbaJeffery C. Moore1st degree murderLife
5/19/2021GastonGrady C. Meredith2nd degree murderLife
6/2/2021GastonRobert Turner1st degree rapeLife
6/2/2021CabarrusTerry Orr1st degree sex offenseLife
6/2/2021MecklenburgDameon L. McCullough2nd degree murderLife
6/9/2021CabarrusBryan E. Gray1st degree rapeLife
6/16/2021MecklenburgRodney Jenkins2nd degree murder
Robbery with dangerous weapon
Life
Records provided by the North Carolina Post Release Supervision and Parole Commission show 17 convicted murders and rapists in the Charlotte-are were set free since March 1, 2021. The first parolee was Gaston County convicted killer Tony D. Hartsell who was sentenced to life for a 1993 murder in Mt. Holly. (Source: NCDPS)

Retribution, Devereux believes, is the impact of what the 1994 Structured Sentencing law had when it abolished parole for high-level felonies.

“It wasn’t just North Carolina. It was every state in the union and I think, generally speaking, throughout the – what we would consider the civilized world – people still have an opportunity to redeem themselves and be paroled,” Devereux said of the 1980s Fair Sentencing law that ended in 1994.

“An eye for an eye,” is how Devereux described the state’s current law that keeps lifers incarcerated for their natural life.

Devereux believes the prosecution in Hartsell’s case could have helped ensure he’d never be freed. Gaston County court records show Hartsell was also convicted of the first-degree burglary charge in 1995, but the judge ordered the burglary sentence be combined with the life sentence for the murder conviction.

Had the judge handed down a separate sentence on Hartsell’s burglary conviction and ordered it to run concurrently – “boxcar” the sentences is how Devereux described it – it’s likely Hartsell’s sentence could’ve been extended by decades.

“There were lots of ways to prevent what’s happening now that Mr. Hartsell is getting out on those facts, there were ways to fix that back then.”

Sean Devereux, 43-year criminal defense attorney

Prosecutors were aware of the 20-year parole eligibility component back then, Devereux said, and would often “tack on” additional charges and request consecutive sentences to essentially void the chance of parole.

The average sentence the 17 men on the parole list served is 31 years. Gaston County convicted rapist Robert Turner’s spent the longest amount of time behind bars with 54 years and counting. The commission is currently reviewing Turner’s case to determine whether to set him free.

“It’s easy to sit back and in the comfort of your home and say, like these people that are sitting on the parole board and the state of North Carolina that decided these laws to say okay, yeah, let him out. Let him out. Well then, let him be your neighbor,” Avagliano said, “You don’t see them stepping up and letting that be a part of the first year or two.”

Avagliano made that same argument to the parole commission all three times she testified to keep Hartsell imprisoned. The Guin family says they now have new worries they never thought they’d entertain when Hartsell’s life sentence was imposed 25 years ago.

Donna Avagliano holds a printout of a March 18, 2021 Facebook post she created after she found out the North Carolina parole commission freed her aunt’s murderer after serving a 25-year prison sentence. (WJZY Photo/Aaron Martin)

“I was here, planting flowers in her yard, and he was watching me. And then I testified in court. So that’s scary, knowing that he knows me, and he knows my brother, and he knows our whole family and he knows everybody that testified against him in court,” Avagliano said.

The parole commission would not tell the Guin family where Hartsell is living, claiming that information was confidential. They’re afraid he could be back in Mt. Holly.

“I can’t change what’s happened in our situation. He’s out. Tony Hartsell’s out, I have no idea where he’s at. And he’s out. There’s nothing we can do to change that. But maybe we can stop another body—someone from getting out that doesn’t deserve to be let go.”

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