Teen murderer Vancleave resentenced, can apply for parole

Posted: April 20, 2017 at 1:11 a.m.

Attorney Mark Freeman (left) of Fayetteville sits with client James Vancleave April 4 in Mark Lindsay's courtroom in the Washington County Courthouse in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- A murderer sentenced to life in prison as a teen almost 40 years ago now has the possibility of parole.

James Dean Vancleave, 55, of Springdale was convicted of capital murder for killing 23-year-old Debra King.

Supreme Court rulings

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down automatic life sentences with no chance of parole for teenage killers more than four years ago in Miller v. Alabama. The court didn’t say if the ruling applied retroactively. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority saying judges weighing prison terms for young offenders must take into account “the mitigating qualities of youth,” including immaturity and the failure to fully comprehend the consequences of their actions.

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that Ulonzo Gordon should get a chance for resentencing in Crittenden County Circuit Court. Gordon was 17 when he was involved in the murder of a West Memphis man in 1995.

A divided U.S. Supreme Court said Jan. 25, 2016, the earlier ruling should be applied retroactively. The ruling means inmates convicted years ago must be considered for parole or given a new sentence. The decision doesn’t bar judges from sentencing teen killers to life in prison, but the court has said life sentences for teens should be rare and only used in the worst cases.

Source: Staff report

Vancleave was 16 when he killed King on Jan. 29, 1978, at a convenience store on Elm Springs Road.

Vancleave stabbed King 16 times, slashed her hand 11 times and tried to slash her throat with a small hunting knife to get $30 from her purse. The cash register wasn't touched.

Motions to transfer the case to juvenile court or change the venue because of media coverage were denied. Vancleave was convicted July 24, 1978. Prosecutors sought the death penalty against Vancleave, but the jury returned life without parole.

Vancleave's attorney, Mark Freeman, argued Wednesday his client was unjustly sentenced and should be ordered released immediately. Freeman said Vancleave has been rehabilitated, has family he can stay with and can work.

Judge Mark Lindsay sided with prosecutors and found a new, retroactive state law, Act 539, eliminated the sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders and created a more age appropriate punishment, bringing Arkansas in line with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings regarding "teen-lifers."

Lindsay resentenced Vancleave on Wednesday to the now statutory maximum of life with the possibility of parole after serving 30 years.

Lindsay said Vancleave, who has served almost 40 years, is eligible for parole but not necessarily entitled to release. Lindsay said it's the job of the Post-Prison Transfer Board, not the circuit court, to determine that issue.

"It's certainly not perfect," said Matt Durrett, Washington County prosecutor. "I would prefer that he not be eligible for parole at all, but this is what the Legislature has left us with, so we have to make do with what we've got."

Durrett said he'll continue to work with King's family, including her brother Les, and will argue against Vancleave's release.

"We'll just have to fight it out before the parole board. As long as they want me to keep fighting, I'll keep fighting," Durrett said. "I'm glad it's over with, but I hate it that Les King has been living for 39 years with the belief that James Vancleave was never gonna get out. Now we start that whole process over again, and fortunately I think this will give him some relief that he (Vancleave) has a life sentence. He just has to go convince the parole board that he (Vancleave) has to serve that sentence."

Relatives of Debra King were on hand Wednesday but declined comment. Vancleave silently acknowledged several people in the courtroom before the hearing began.

Vancleave has been held at the state Department of Correction's Grimes Unit at Newport in Jackson County.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Herb Wright said April 10 the Arkansas Supreme Court will have to resolve a disagreement between prosecutors and defense lawyers over how the new sentencing law applies to at least five Pulaski County murderers convicted as teenagers. They were each sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Wright said he could not close their cases because their life sentences have been vacated by court action.

Durrett said he thinks the same ruling Lindsay made Wednesday applies to Chris Segerstrom, who is due in court next week. He intends to make a similar motion Segerstrom be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 30 years. Segerstrom's court appearance is Wednesday.

Segerstrom, 45, was convicted of capital murder for killing a 4-year-old Fayetteville girl in 1986, meaning he would be immediately eligible to apply for parole.

Segerstrom was 15 on July 26, 1986, when he took Barbara Thompson into a wooded area behind the Lewis Plaza Apartments and sexually assaulted her before bashing her head with a rock and suffocating her. Segerstrom had promised to help the child catch butterflies.

Segerstrom is being held at the state Department of Correction's Ouachita River Unit at Malvern in Hot Spring County.

NW News on 04/20/2017