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Editorial: Life sentence was short

North Carolina is reaping what the Legislature sowed a few decades ago when prison sentences and actual time served could differ greatly. Here’s a case in point ó a good example of what confuses the public about the state’s criminal justice system and fosters skepticism.
Santo Shipp of Salisbury received a life sentence in 1994 after pleading guilty to charges of first-degree burglary and common law robbery. His crimes involved knocking on people’s doors, pushing his way in and then beating and robbing the elderly residents he was targeting ó what today would be called a home invasion. The victims were left afraid to go out of their homes or answer the door.
Among Shipp’s victims was a couple who lived on the very street where B.P. and Ruby Tutterow were murdered in their home during a 1992 home invasion.
“This happened right on Park Avenue,” Judge Thomas Seay said before passing sentence during Shipp’s trial. “We’ve had so much tragedy over there.” Then he sentenced Shipp to life.
That life sentence lasted about 13 years. This week Shipp, paroled in 2007, is in the news again as a criminal suspect, though violence does not appear to be involved, thankfully. He is accused of scamming several prominent people out of money with hard-luck stories, and in some cases going back to their homes and asking for more. He knew whom to ask, too ó older doctors, bankers, retired supermarket executives and others known for their generosity. Often he asked for only $80. Some gave; some didn’t. Many reported the calls to police and then watched out the window in fear.
Shipp is innocent until proven guilty, but his short-lived life sentence begs an obvious question. Why only 13 years?
Shipp’s 1994 crimes occurred several months before the state’s structured sentencing law went into effect. Keith Acree, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Corrections, said Tuesday that Shipp was eligible for parole after serving 10 years; he was approved for parole in 2007.
Had Shipp been given a life sentence for crimes committed after Oct. 1, 1994, that sentence would have had more meaning. But the fact is, the crimes Shipp committed in 1994 would not result in a life sentence today. First-degree burglary is a serious crime, a Class D felony that carries a mandatory prison sentence. But, depending on prior criminal history, the sentence can range from 38 months to 183 months (more than 15 years). That’s far from a life sentence.
Shipp’s case is not to be confused with those of the lifers whose court-ordered release has infuriated the governor and prompted legal maneuvering to keep them behind bars. They committed crimes like rape and murder, and they were sentenced in the 1970s. But Shipp’s ill-named “life” sentence does compound the distrust of the criminal justice system resulting from those high-profile cases. Unfortunately, this story also shows again how criminals sometimes victimize elderly citizens. The people Shipp is accused of targeting this time will not miss their money, but they may mourn the feeling of security they used to enjoy in their own homes.

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