• Felicia Porter was raped, then beaten to death with a shovel by her nephew, Riley Conner, in 2016.
The state’s highest court has overturned what was effectively a life sentence for a man who raped and murdered his aunt with a shovel.
Riley Conner, 21, was 15 years and six months old when he lured Felicia Porter outside her home on Savannah Road near Tabor City. Porter’s body was found the next day by ground searchers, roughly 100 yards from the trailer where the murder occurred. Conner initially blamed an older cousin for the crime, but evidence later showed he was the killer.
Porter, 45, was reported missing March 10, 2016, after visiting Fowler’s Supermarket earlier in the day. Deputies found Porter’s badly-beaten body in a wooded area near her home the next day. She was positively identified by the state Medical Examiner the following Monday.
Connor was arrested after he was indicted by a grand jury on charges of first degree murder, first degree forcible rape, larceny of a motor vehicle, possession of stolen property, breaking and entering, and larceny. The larceny and other charges stemmed from a break-in at a nearby store shortly before the killing.
Witnesses described how Conner witnessed his parents using illegal drugs at an early age. He was later placed in the care of another relative, who was supposed to home school the then-adolescent, but instead allowed Conner and a cousin to spend most of their time unsupervised. Witnesses said Conner – who already suffered from epilepsy — began using drugs at age nine, and alcohol as an early teen. His only “role model,” the courts noted, was a cousin ten years his senior, who was an habitual felon with an extensive criminal history.
“(The) defendant ‘had a limited ability to fully appreciate the risks and consequences of his conduct based upon the totality of his poor upbringing’,” the court decision said, with the note that defendant, “[b]ased upon testing and other professional evaluations, . . . (Conner) would benefit from education, counseling, and substance abuse treatment while in confinement and incarceration”.
Conner pleaded guilty to first degree murder and first degree rape in February 2019, as part of a plea deal. Multiple other charges were dropped as part of the deal. Conner was sentenced to minimum of 45 years in prison before he could be considered for parole. The sentence was the maximum available for the rape, based on his age, mitigating factors and his prior record. Under that sentence, Conner would have been in his 60s before he could be considered for parole, and the state court ruled that the sentence was actually a de facto life sentence for a teen defendant.
The justices said in a split vote that Conner’s lifelong history of trauma and abuse, which started when he was a small child and involved drug and alcohol use as an adolescent, negated some of the deciding factors in the sentence.
The primary issue, however, was the possibility of serving 35 to 49 years in prison, starting as a teenager. Sentencing a teen defendant to life in prison is unconstitutional, the courts ruled.
The justices cited the landmark case of Miller vs. Alabama, where a juvenile defendant was sentenced to life without parole. Under North Carolina law, juvenile murder defendants are eligible for parole after 25 years in prison.
Conner will be resentenced later this fall.