HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. — After 35 years in prison for stealing a black-and-white television set, Junior Allen is a free man.
Allen, 65, walked out of prison Friday, ending a case that attracted widespread attention because he remained in jail while other inmates convicted of murder, rape or child molestation were released.
"I'm glad to be out," Allen told supporters outside Orange Correctional Center. "I've done too much time for what I did. I won't be truly happy until I see a sign that says I'm outside of North Carolina."
Allen was a 30-year-old migrant farm worker from Georgia with a criminal history that included burglaries and a violent assault when he sneaked into an unlocked house and stole a 19-inch black-and-white television worth $140.
Some state records say Allen roughed up the 87-year-old woman who lived there, but he was not convicted of assault.
Instead, he was sentenced in 1970 to life in prison for second-degree burglary. The penalty for the offense has since been changed to a maximum of three years in prison.
The state Parole Commission decided last year to release Allen if he behaved and completed a transitional work-release program. He worked at a restaurant washing dishes and floors and had no prison infractions during the past three years.
He did so well he was released several months early — on his 26th try at parole. His parole could last up to five years, meaning he could gain complete freedom by age 70.
Rich Rosen, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law professor who took up Allen's case three years ago, said it was a shame that Allen had not been released decades ago. "At least he's got some years left," Rosen said.
Allen did not meet with the parole commission until January 2004. Prior to that time, his record was reviewed regularly by the commission and denied.
Rosen said the parole commission "hasn't been able to articulate a reason that Allen wasn't released."
"He wasn't the best prisoner, (but) he wasn't the worst," Rosen said.
Once outside the prison, Allen got into a car with two friends who were driving him to Athens, Ga., where he planned to meet relatives and return home to Georgetown, Ga.
Enoch Hasberry, the programs director at Carteret Correctional Center in Newport where Allen went through work-release, said he worries Allen might not adjust well to life on the outside.
"For a black-and-white TV, how much do you have to pay?" Hasberry said. "We've got an in-house joke here: How much time would he have gotten if he had stolen a color TV?"