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RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – Two men from the Piedmont Triad serving life sentences for second-degree murder will be released from prison because their crimes occurred before state law changed.

Jeffrey M. Willis (NC DOC)
Christopher M. Smith (NC DOC)

The North Carolina Post Release Supervision and Parole Commission announced Monday that Jeffrey Maurice Willis, now 51, of Burlington and Christopher M. Smith, 47, of Winston-Salem would be released on March 3, 2025.

Willis was convicted on Nov. 8, 1993, after pleading guilty in the strangulation death of his girlfriend in Alamance County, and Smith was convicted on Dec. 14, 1994, on charges of second-degree murder and attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon in January 1994.

Both men had been sentenced to life, but they were granted parole under the state’s Mutual Agreement Parole Program, which a release describes as “a scholastic and vocational program that is a three-way agreement between the Commission, the Division of Prisons and the offender.”

The release explained that the state’s current sentencing law, Structured Sentencing, eliminates parole for crimes committed on or after Oct. 1, 1994, and that the commission has responsibility for sentencing under previous guidelines.

Willis, for one, had sued in 2018 in Alamance County to get the commission to honor the laws of 1993 and grant him annual reviews, the Burlington Times-News reported. That case was transferred to Wake County Superior Court but never was pursued because the plaintiff didn’t follow through.

State law at the time provided an annual parole review after 10 years in prison, Willis’s lawsuit stated. The filing argued that the law changed again in 2008 and that he was told in 2009 he would get parole reviews only every three years, the Times-News reported.

Greg Thomas, a spokesperson with the NC Department of Public Safety, said in an email that “there is nothing different or unusual about either of these cases. Both have been reviewed under the normal parole review process.”

He reiterated the MAPP program and their release date in 2025 and that they had opportunity for parole.

Willis, then 22, had been charged with first-degree murder in the strangulation of Kathryn L. Benton, 22, who was found dead in her home. Willis turned himself into police and later agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder. Police at the time said they thought the killing was part of an argument between the two.

Smith, then 18, was one of three teenagers charged with killing Terry Lee Hall of Winston-Salem. Hall was shot once in the lower left abdomen as he was in or near his truck on Lambeth Street, Winston-Salem Police said at the time. It was an area the Winston-Salem Journal said was known as “crack alley.” Police related the shooting to what one called an “open-air drug market” where there were a lot of drug-related homicides.