North Carolina man sentenced to life at age 15 set to be freed

23 January 2023

TROY, N.C. (WGHP) – Ellsworth A. Ingram was 15 years old in 1998 when he was sentenced to prison for the rest of his life, with no chance for parole.

Ingram, now 41, was convicted in Montgomery Superior Court on Sept. 21, 1998, on a charge of first-degree murder from July 3, 1997, about five months short of his 16th birthday and agreed to the life sentence.

Alamance County man involved in baseball-bat-beating death to be released from life sentence

Ellsworth A. Ingram (NC DPS)

But because he was so young, that original sentence was set aside in 2020 after the state law changed and the U.S. Supreme Court had established what was appropriate under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. On March 6, he is scheduled to be freed.

He is the latest in a recent group of inmates to be approved by the North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission under its program to consider parole for those sentenced for crimes committed before Oct. 1, 1994.

North Carolina abolished parole in cases involving murder and rape as of Oct. 1, 1994, and the commission is charged with considering the parole of offenders who were sentenced under guidelines before that date. The commission sometimes seeks public comment on whether that parole should be granted.

Ingram qualified for parole through the commission’s Mutual Agreement Parole Program, which is a scholastic and vocational process that is completed and reviewed in a three-way agreement among the commission, the Division of Prisons and the offender.

Changes in law

Because Ingram would’ve turned 16 on Dec. 15, 1997, and pleaded guilty in the case, there are no details available readily about who he admitted to killing and how and why that crime took place. There were no other charges associated with the murder.

But we do know that he benefitted from a series of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately changes in North Carolina law about whether mandatory life sentences for juveniles are appropriate.

“Mr. Ingram was initially sentenced to life without parole in 1998,” Leigh Kent, lead parole case analyst for the commission wrote in an email to WGHP. “He was resentenced in 2020 to life with parole based on NC G.S. 15A-1340.19A, which applies to offenders under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.” 

That statute stipulates that, for a defendant who is convicted of first-degree murder before the age of 18, “life imprisonment with parole shall mean that the defendant shall serve a minimum of 25 years imprisonment prior to becoming eligible for parole.”

SCOTUS rulings update

Ironically that pre-1994 change from “fair sentencing” to “structured sentencing,” under which Ingram will be released, led to a change in the law that was more stringent for juveniles. The General Assembly lowered the threshold for juveniles to be tried as adults to 13, which the NC Supreme Court upheld in State v. Green.

But in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the Eighth Amendment “barred the imposition of the death penalty on persons who were juveniles at the time of the offense,” and then in 2010 the court ruled in Graham v. Florida that life without parole was an “especially harsh punishment for a juvenile.”

That was followed in 2012 with Miller v. Alabama when the Supreme Court “forbade mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenses.”

North Carolina adjusted its law to what it called a “Miller fix,” which required resentencing of 94 defendants between the ages of 13 and 17 who had been sentenced to life. There were 30 between 1994 and 1999, which included Ingram, who was one of three under the program to have taken a plea.

In 2022 the NC Supreme Court created a 40-year maximum prison sentence for juveniles convicted of violent crimes. The General Assembly stipulated the minimum of 25.

The MAPP program

The commission’s announcement of Ingram’s release says that MAPP is a “scholastic and vocational program” that is a 3-way agreement among the commission, the Division of Prisons and the offender.

To be part of the MAPP program, an inmate must show a desire to improve educational and training programs and a self-improvement process. There is a 3-year walk-up to release that, the MAPP website states, requires the inmate:

To be in medium or minimum custody.

Not to be subject to a detainer or pending court action that could result in further confinement.

To be infraction-free for a period of 90 days before being recommended.

If sentenced under the Fair Sentencing Act, to be eligible for 270-day parole or community-service parole.

Ingram has been housed most recently at Catawba Correctional Center in Newton and has been charged with 29 infractions, the most recent in February of 2022 for fighting with a weapon. He also had four infractions in 2021 and two in 2020. There are a variety of charges on his record, but many were for disobeying orders and profane language.

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