RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) — A Greensboro woman who killed four people in an apartment fire more than 20 years ago will take her first steps toward the possibility of freedom with a parole hearing after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper commuted her sentence.

Janet Danahey was arrested after an investigation found that she set fire to a futon on a deck at the Campus Walk Apartments off Spring Garden Street on Feb. 15, 2002. She later admitted to starting the fire as a Valentine’s prank on an ex-boyfriend. Danahey pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree murder and first-degree arson in July 2002.

Cooper’s decision to commute Danahey’s sentence meant she became eligible for parole on Jan. 1. Her attorney, Don Vaughan, says her parole hearing is scheduled for Jan. 17.

What happened?

Left: Janet Danahey (mugshot). Right: Scene of fire (WGHP)

Sisters Donna and Rachel Llewellyn died in the fire, as well as their roommate Beth Harris and Harris’ boyfriend Ryan Bek. They were in an apartment on the third floor. Danahey’s ex-boyfriend lived in an apartment on the second floor of the building. Several other people were injured.

Danahey, 44, served 20 years for the four murders. The governor’s office says that Danahey has been consistently employed and successfully participated in educational programs during her incarceration.

In 2012, Guilford County District Attorney’s Office chief prosecutor Howard Neumann said Danahey pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty after the victim’s families agreed to the district’s attorney’s office making a deal.

“They walked out of the courtroom that day with assurances from us that she would spend the rest of her life in prison because that’s what she agreed to be sentenced to and that’s what she was sentenced to,” he said in 2012.

Sentences commuted

Danahey was among six people whose sentences were commuted by the governor on Dec. 20, alongside four who were granted pardons of forgiveness, which relieves the recipient from collateral consequences of a past conviction.

“Ensuring fairness in our justice system through executive clemency is a responsibility I take seriously,” said Governor Cooper. “We carefully consider research and recommendations made by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board to commute sentences for crimes committed by minors. All of these individuals are deserving of clemency and we will continue to work to protect our communities and improve the fairness of our justice system.”

Here are the other five whose sentences were commuted:

Donnie Parker, 37, who has served 20 years in prison for his role at age 17 in the murder and robbery of Lila Burton McGhee in Person County. The Juvenile Sentence Review Board recommended this commutation. While incarcerated, Mr. Parker has been consistently employed and has successfully participated in work release. His sentence was commuted to time served. Mr. Parker’s projected release date would have been in August 2024.

Benjamin Williams, 44, who has served 28 years for his role at age 16 in the murder of Kenneth L. Freeman in Edgecombe County. The Juvenile Sentence Review Board recommended this commutation. While incarcerated, Mr. Williams has been consistently employed and participated in learning programs, including obtaining his G.E.D. and trade qualifications. His sentence was commuted to time served. Mr. Williams was scheduled to be released on parole in August 2023.

Kolanda Wooten, 37, who has served 19 years in prison for her role at age 17 in the murder of Jamaal Rashaud Pearsall in Wayne County. While incarcerated, Ms. Wooten has been consistently employed and has completed professional classes. Her sentence was commuted to time served.
Joey Graham, 50, who has served 12 years for drug trafficking in Mecklenburg County. Mr. Graham is an Air Force veteran and has been consistently employed while incarcerated. His sentence was commuted to time served.

TiShekka Cain, 38, who has served seven years for drug trafficking in Guilford County. Ms. Cain has been consistently employed and has participated in work release. Her sentence was commuted to time served. Her projected release date would have been December 2024.

These are the four who received pardons of forgiveness:

Stefany Lewis, 50, who was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury in Robeson County in 1991. Ms. Lewis was 18 years old when the offense was committed. She has since worked as a childcare provider for many years.

Cathy Grimes, 67, who was convicted of possession with intent to sell and deliver cocaine in Wayne County in 1979. Ms. Grimes was 23 years old when the offense was committed. She has worked as a nurse for many years and is licensed in Maine and New York.

Eric Colburn, 46, who was convicted of drug offenses and discharging a weapon into an occupied property in New Hanover County in 2001. Mr. Colburn was 23 years old when the offenses were committed. He is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who has worked in finance for many years and been an active volunteer in organizations supporting veterans and children.

Brenda French, 60, who was convicted of drug and forgery offenses in Forsyth County in 1986 and 1987. Ms. French was 23 years old when the offenses were committed and has worked for years in Forsyth County to help people address addiction issues.