Josh Shaffer

Canadian inmate serving 160 years: Deport me and save money

When he was young and stupid, Derek Twyman helped burglarize a string of houses in Greensboro, home to wealthy, country-club families – a spree that got him locked up for an incredible 160 years.

Now 51 and gray-haired, he expects to die behind bars barring unforeseen changes in the law or human biology. But for the last decade, he’s asked the state to grant one request: Send me back to Canada.

He’s not a U.S. citizen, let alone a Tar Heel. He came here around age 14, following his father’s job in the furniture trade. Deport me, he pleads. Send me to a cell in Nova Scotia. It’ll save taxpayers almost $30,000 a year.

“They tell me I’ll be 105 when I get out,” Twyman said. “I figure if I’m going to die, I might as well die in my own country.”

Here’s the hitch:

Before it will even consider him for deportation, North Carolina demands that he pay full restitution to the victims in the case, which comes to $308,301.86. Twyman gets a few bucks from his father, much of which he spends on stamps. So retiring this debt is about as likely as getting shag carpeting for his cell.

“I’ve been trying to locate the victims,” Twyman noted. “It seems like half of them are already dead.”

I drove to Nash Correctional on Thursday to talk with Twyman, who hails from suburban Toronto. Having served in almost 20 prisons by now, he said he got to know a pair of famous inmates: novelist Michael Peterson, now out of prison and awaiting a new trial, and Rae Carruth, former wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers.

Twyman told me he doesn’t remember breaking into any particular houses or stealing any specific loot. He was young and Canadian in the Winston-Salem of the 1980s, talking and acting differently from his peers. With the distance and perspective provided by age, he explains that he wholeheartedly joined up with a bad crowd.

Newspapers at the time described Twyman as the ne’er-do-well son of an affluent furniture dealer, cruising around golf courses in a Mercedes, the Canadian mastermind casing houses to rob. But Twyman rejects that portrayal. He says now that he borrowed his father’s company car, and that he went along on four or five break-ins out of the string of several dozen.

In 1989, Twyman pleaded guilty to multiple sets of burglaries on the advice of his lawyer, John Hatfield Jr., who explained that his sentence could be as light as 14 years. Judge Thomas W. Ross, best in the district, would give him a fair sentence, Hatfield wrote. But he shouldn’t expect leniency.

“He will also be responsive to the feelings of the homeowners,” Hatfield wrote, “many of whom will be personally known to him.”

Ross, of course, went on to be president of the UNC system. While in court, transcripts show, Ross asked Assistant District Attorney Richard Panosh if any of the property taken by Twyman had been covered by insurance. The prosecutor said he didn’t know. Panosh then told the judge that Twyman already had restitution due for a previous crime.

“Your honor,” Panosh said, “we have not sought to establish the actual loss of each of these victims because we feel restitution is going to be impractical.”

I couldn’t find any of those victims, and I called four of five names of people who would now be in their 70s. But I did find a story from The (Greensboro) News & Record in 1990, in which 63-year-old Nancy Willis forgave Twyman’s partner.

“Son, you are so young,” Willis told Jason Southard at the time. “You need a fresh start. You don't need to ask my forgiveness because I have freely given it, and whatever the court does with you is the court’s business.”

All of this happened just a few years before North Carolina adopted structured sentencing, which almost certainly would have spelled a drastically shorter sentence for Twyman. Even so, his partner Southard walked away with a far more lenient spanking, 50 years. He got charged with more crimes in 2007, this time larceny and arson.

All while Twyman waits.

I’m not here to debate the legal rights and wrongs of a 160-year sentence or its six-figure payback. They sound outrageous to me, but I wasn’t in court at the time, I haven’t read the entire transcript and I’m certainly no lawyer. My house got burglarized in November, and if they ever catch the culprits, I don’t want them dying in prison for the sake of a laptop. But that’s not my point today.

My point: If Canada will take Twyman, let him go. He’s already served far more time than hundreds of burglars like him, and if shipping him north saves us money, what’s to lose?

Let this man, who has more than repaid society for a misspent youth, skate on this highly questionable tab. Free or not, let him breathe Canadian air and call his cell home.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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