A Canadian citizen Derek Twyman was recently freed from a North Carolina prison after being convicted in 1989 to a staggering sentence of 160 years for committing a series of non-violent burglaries.
Twyman was able to return to Canada after spending over 27 years behind bars thanks to the efforts of a group of Canadian lawyers who spent nearly a decade in efforts to fight Twyman’s excessively harsh sentence. He had moved with his father to North Carolina as a child.
At the time of Twyman’s trial in 1989, the presiding judge for the case, Thomas Ross, gave out the 160-year sentence to the 25-year-old citing his previous convictions as a juvenile as well as Twyman’s perceived lack of remorse for the crimes. The other person involved in the crime Jason Southard who helped Twyman commit the burglaries, received a 50-year sentence but was eligible for parole after less than 20 years.
Unable To Benefit From North Carolina laws Change
Around five years after Twyman’s sentence was passed, North Carolina laws were changed under which crimes similar to Twyman’s would only carry a maximum sentence of about 14 years. However since law was not retroactive in nature, Twyman did not benefit from it.
Over decades, Twyman, who is now in his 50s, repeatedly wrote to all North Carolina governors, state representative, senators, lawyers as well as advocates pleading for help, but the letters did not yielded much results.
Twyman noted that with the law change, he would have done just around six to nine months, per burglary charge.
In 2007, Twyman decided to post an ad for legal advice on Writeaprisoner.com, a website that allows inmates ask for help on their cases. A University of New Brunswick law student, Shane Martinez, took note and examined the case along with a team of fellow students and lawyers.
Martinez stated that the sentence on the face of it, “was just so egregious”, that if the case was presented “in front of the right people in North Carolina”, then they would “agree that, in fact, it was an unreasonable sentence.”
Martinez along with the team spent a decade on efforts to raise awareness for Twyman’s story and to put the case in front of someone who could help get Twyman released.
In 2016, Twyman contacted criminal attorney Mark Knox, who works with an organization that helps criminal offenders to reintegrate into society. Knox started bringing in other lawyers and law students to help with the cause.
Martinez said that Knox was “absolutely imperative” for the success of the case.
Judge Recommendation Helped Persuade Parole Board
The big break for case came when James Craven III, a lawyer known for prosecution of KKK members during the civil rights movement, read about Twyman’s story in a local newspaper article.
Craven got in touch the judge who originally convicted Twyman in order to convince him to recommend a release, which he did.
The recommendation from the judge to North Carolina’s parole board helped get Twyman out of prison. The parole board in North Carolina finally decided that Twyman qualified for a full release in May 2017.
However Twyman could not make it back to Canada immediately as he was picked up by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and held for 118 days. There are no clear reasons as to why the U.S. customs agency detained Twyman.
He was subsequently released in November allowing Twyman to finally reach Canada as a free man .
Twyman and Martinez are planning on starting an organization to help the hundreds of Canadian citizens who are stuck in prisons abroad. Martinez stated that many of them were in similar situation as Twyman and had been abandoned by the Canadian government.