CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A man convicted of murder two decades ago was released from jail.
Kentay Lee was in the courtroom Monday morning. He was a far cry from the teenager who was sentenced 20 years ago to life in prison without parole.
He was only 14 when he and another 14-year-old beat and killed Edward Mingo inside a public housing project in uptown Charlotte during a drunken party on New Year’s Eve in 1998.
Nine days later, Lee told detectives he’d lost control and attacked when Mingo began making sexual advances.
"I’m like, ‘Terrence, I’m fixing to get him,’” Lee said during his confession. “So, I just, I just ran at him, then put him in a chokehold as hard as I could and started choking him, and Terrence cut him.”
When a detective asked Lee why he wanted to "get him," he responded, “Because he, he had been, he’d been messing with me all night, and I was scared. You know what I’m saying?”
A year later, the other teenager took the prosecutors’ plea offer for second-degree murder and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. He’s since been released.
But prosecutors did not offer the same for Lee. A jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, which came with a mandatory life sentence.
Three months ago, Lee’s attorneys and prosecutors agreed to throw that conviction out.
Instead, Lee pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and would be released with credit for the time he's already served in prison.
“This is justice because the defendant was only 14,” prosecutor Jay Ashendorf said.
Ashendorf said it’s the right call. About a dozen of Lee’s attorneys and supporters were there Monday morning as a judge made it official.
Lee turned to those who had stood behind him in his legal battle but didn’t show much emotion as he left the courtroom on his way to freedom for the first time in more than 20 years.
The agency affiliated with helping Lee is the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative.
It was founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson, a well-known lawyer and author of the book Just Mercy, which was recently made into a movie.
The organization says it works to fight mass incarceration and excessive punishment.
One of the group’s key initiatives is to challenge extreme sentences for children.
It says about 4,500 children are housed in adult jails and prisons on any given day in America, and those who are will be up to nine times more likely to die by suicide than those in juvenile facilities.
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