Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina’s Supreme Court ruled Friday that criminals sentenced to life in prison for murder, rape and other crimes at a time in the 1970s, when a life term was defined by law as 80 years behind bars, will indeed spend life in prison.
The criminals and their laywers had argued that, with time served and credits earned for good behavior and productive work behind bars, those people had served their sentence and should be released.
The court ruled two years ago that those convicted of first-degree murder shouldn’t be released early despite whatever credits they earned.
In February, the high court heard the appeal of two prisoners, Clyde Vernon Lovette and Charles Lynch, whose offenses were less than premeditated murder.
Lovette, 56, pleaded guilty to a 1978 second-degree murder. The judge who sentenced him said evidence showed that the 21-year-old strangled a 4-year-old boy with a rope and that he “should never be paroled.”
Lynch, 61, was convicted of two counts of second-degree burglary. He broke into a victim’s home in 1978 while she was away, then assaulted her when she returned. He also broke into another victim’s home and stole a necklace.
The General Assembly revised sentencing laws in the 1980s and 1990s under pressure from lawsuits accusing overcrowded prisons of unconstitutional cruel punishment.
The state’s Division of Adult Correction has long had a system that allowed prisoners to earn credits for good conduct, called good time, and for working extra in prison kitchens or other jobs, called gained time, that would reduce their sentences.
In the case of prison lifers, the credits were used to determine parole eligibility, whether they’d enjoy reduced custody restrictions and to reduce their incarceration if they were later re-sentenced to a fixed number of years, the agency said.
Seven types of inmate were banned from earning sentence reduction credits, but the inmates sentenced during the 1970s period when “life” meant 80 years weren’t among them.
Lovette and Lynch argued to the high court that they had earned so many credits that their original 80-year life sentence term had diminished to around 30 by 2009, and they should be released.
Thirteen other inmates also have petitioned for their release under the same argument. Prosecutors say six were originally sentenced to death for rape. Three inmates got multiple life terms.
State Secretary of Public Safety Kieran Shanahan applauded the court ruling.
“Inmates sentenced to life in prison under past laws will continue to remain incarcerated until they are paroled,” Shanahan said in a statement. “Victims of these serious and violent crimes can know that these offenders will not be released into our communities until we are sure that they are no longer a threat to public safety.”
There are 122 prisoners currently in the state’s prisons who received life sentences defined as 80 years.
Shanahan said DPS would continue to encourage life sentence inmates to abide by prison rules and improve their behavior, so they may improve their chances of parole under appropriate supervision.