RALEIGH, N.C. — The state Court of Appeals on Monday afternoon halted the release of two inmates sentenced to life in prison, hours after a Superior Court judge ordered their release.
Judge Ripley Rand ruled Monday morning in the cases of convicted murderers Alford Jones and Faye Brown. Both were sentenced in the 1970s under an old law that defined a life sentence as 80 years.
Attorneys for both inmates argued last week that the old law, combined with good-behavior credits meant to reduce sentences, mean their clients' prison terms are complete.
Correction officials said state law prohibits felons serving life prison sentences from receiving good behavior credits for purposes of unconditional release from prison. The credits were awarded only for purposes of earning a more favorable custody grade, for becoming eligible for parole or for a commutation of a sentence by the governor.
Rand ruled the Department of Correction wrongly interpreted its regulation on the sentence-reduction credits. His order would have released the two inmates at 5 p.m., but the appeals court issued temporary stays of the decisions by 4 p.m.
The Court of Appeals will now review Rand's orders, but there's no timetable for when the court will decide the matter.
Gov. Beverly Perdue said Monday she was "furious" over Rand's rulings.
"This is not how government and the courts are supposed to work for the people of North Carolina," Perdue said. "This is wrong. I've been in politics a long time, and I have never been this disgusted with the system in my life."
Brown, 56, was convicted 34 years ago in Martin County of murder and sentenced to death after she and two acquaintances robbed a bank and one of the men shot Trooper Guy Thomas Davis Jr. of the state Highway Patrol. Her sentence was eventually commuted to a life sentence.
Jones was convicted of murder in Lenoir County 34 years ago for the shooting death of William B. Turner Sr. Likewise, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Perdue complained that no one has spoken for Jones' and Brown's victims. She was especially upset that someone involved in killing a state trooper could be released.
Col. Randy Glover, commander of the state Highway Patrol, said releasing Brown without supervision amounts to a lack of respect for law enforcement.
"Why is it that law enforcement is so expendable? I do not understand that," Glover said. "We have families. We're part of communities like everyone else."
Larry Overby, a retired captain of the state Highway Patrol who worked with Trooper Davis, said he is strongly opposed to Brown's release.
“I believe a life sentence should be a life sentence,” Overby said Monday.
Thomas Maher, executive director of the state Office of Indigent Defense Services, said Perdue and other state officials shouldn't tamper with Rand's rulings.
"Judge Rand simply ruled that these inmates were entitled to be treated the same as any other inmate with an 80-year sentence," Maher said in a statement. "The decision to define a life sentence as 80 years was rightly a political decision made by elected representatives. The decision to treat all inmates equally under the law is not a political decision, but rather a judicial decision that should be respected by our elected representatives."
Brown and Jones are two of more than two dozen inmates – mostly convicted murderers and sex offenders – who were prepared for release in October after state courts ruled in favor of double-murderer Bobby Bowden, who sued for his release.
The potential releases sparked outrage among many, including the governor, partly because all but one of the inmates would be free without any post-release supervision.
“I've spoken with many of those who were harmed by the 125 murderers and rapists, ” Tom Bennett, executive director of the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network, said. "I can assure you that many of their victims are frightened, angry and bitter."
Perdue vowed to block the releases and argued prison officials improperly applied some of the credits.
Shortly before the inmates' expected release, the Department of Correction adjusted their release dates, setting the earliest date for unconditional release in 2054.