Just punishment?

Two-time murderer will get a chance at parole

For hitting a man with a stick, 17-year-old Damon Tyrone Lee got a death sentence, of sorts. He was given 12 years in prison for the aggravated assault charge and, halfway through his time, was beaten to death by his cellmate.

For beating Lee so badly that his neck was broken and his face bore bite marks, Lee's cellmate Leon Murphy was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole — the very sentence he already was serving when he began bludgeoning Lee. (Lee's murder and allegations of negligence by the state Department of Corrections was the subject of a story in last week's CLatlanta.creativeloafing.com/2003-04-09/cover.html.)

The fact that Murphy, when he killed Lee, already was serving a life sentence illustrates a conundrum when it comes to punishing convicts who commit crimes in prison. What difference does it make — and what disincentive does it offer against future crimes — to give a life-with-parole sentence to someone who's already serving one?

Murphy, who was in prison for murdering an acquaintance in 2000, was supposed to plead guilty in January to murdering Lee at Autry State Prison in 2002. But Murphy backed out of the plea at the last minute, shortly after telling a Mitchell County judge that he "killed an innocent man" and "just wanted to tell the truth about what happened."

Murphy's murder trial was scheduled for late April. But he avoided trial by finally entering a guilty plea April 2.

For a first-time murder charge, life with parole is the mandatory sentence. But legislation hatched in the mid-1990s says that if someone is twice convicted of one of "seven deadly sins," that person automatically receives a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Murder is one of the sins. But in Murphy's case, the sentencing guidelines weren't heeded.

The district attorney who prosecuted Murphy indicated there was a chance Murphy would have faced a more severe sentence had he killed his second victim outside prison walls.

"Any time you start talking death penalty or life without parole, you've got to have a pretty clean victim, an innocent type of stranger-to-stranger situation," says Brown Moseley, district attorney for Mitchell County. "You just don't have that when your victim is a prison inmate."

Rick Malone, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, says there is no norm for prosecuting inmates who commit crimes in prison. But he points out that a second life with parole sentence doesn't necessarily guarantee Murphy will be paroled.

"The sentence can be interpreted several ways," Malone says. "If it's your second homicide, there's not much of a chance of you getting out of prison under today's [parole] board, the way they've been doing things."

Still, Murphy's sentence does not rest well with Lee's sister. The family is suing prison officials for Lee's death. The lawsuit, filed by attorneys in the Atlanta office of mega-firm King & Spalding, alleges that guards neglected their duty and that Autry's higher-ups condoned the negligence that allowed Murphy to get away with murder.

Now, says Lee's sister, Cassandra, the courts have made it even easier on Murphy by offering him the possibility of parole when state law says he shouldn't be afforded such an opportunity.

"He doesn't need the possibility for anything," Cassandra Lee says. "How many more lives is he going to be able to take? What other mother or daughter or sister has to go through this? My brother didn't get a possibility for anything."