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N.C. Supreme Court: Life sentences cannot be reduced

Posted August 27, 2010

— Two convicted killers who argued that they should be released from prison because they had served their life sentences under a 36-year-old state law must remain incarcerated, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Friday.

A Wake County judge ordered in December that Alford Jones and Faye Brown be released, but a divided Supreme Court reversed that ruling, saying the state Department of Correction and the state parole board should determine when inmates get out.

"The legal battle, I would suspect, is not over," said attorney Thomas Maher, executive director of the state Office of Indigent Services.

Staples Hughes, the lawyer for the two inmates, said he was trying to determine if there are grounds to appeal the ruling in federal court.

"We know that this litigation has been difficult for the families of the victims in these cases, but we believe that the relevant precedents require a different result," Hughes said in a statement.

Gov. Beverly Perdue and Correction Secretary Alvin Keller, who fought the inmate releases, praised the court's ruling.

"We can all sleep a little sounder tonight knowing that violent prisoners will not be released into our communities without review or supervision," Perdue said in a statement. “One hundred and thirty three violent criminals will remain behind bars because of (this) decision."

"The department takes very seriously its responsibility to calculate sentences correctly, and the court's decision today has upheld our ability to do that," Keller said in a statement.

Jones and Brown are among dozens of inmates sentenced under a 1974 law that defined a life sentence as 80 years. Attorneys for the inmates have argued that the old law, combined with good behavior credits, means their clients' prison terms are complete.

Jail generic, prison generic Inmates likely to appeal ruling on sentences

"The law was clear that these were 80 year sentences," Maher said. "There was no regulation that said they were to be treated differently, and yet, because of incredible public and political pressure, we end up with a decision that finds a way to overturn their rights."

Keller said state law prohibits felons serving life 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, he said.

"It just simply was never used to determine a release date," he said.

Five of the seven Supreme Court judges agreed.

"(Jones) has no state-created right to have his time credits used to calculate his eligibility for unconditional release," Associate Justice Robert Edmunds wrote for the majority. "DOC’s determination that Jones’ immediate, unconditional release would endanger public safety in any respect is a compelling state interest outweighing any limited due-process liberty interest Jones may have in application of his good time, gain time, and merit time credits to his unconditional release."

Chief Justice Sarah Parker and Associate Justice Mark Martin joined in Edmunds' opinion.

A concurring opinion by Associate Justices Paul Newby and Edward Thomas Brady concluded that the arguments to keep Jones and Brown behind bars should apply to all inmates sentenced to life in prison under the 1974 law. They said life sentences have always been treated differently under state law than sentences of specific numbers of years.

"Jones has not demonstrated any right, let alone a fundamental right, to have his time credits applied to his sentence for all possible purposes, nor has he shown that inmates sentenced to life imprisonment are a suspect class," Newby wrote. "DOC’s disparate treatment of life inmates ... is rationally related to the legitimate state ends of punishing heinous crimes with greater severity and ensuring public safety."

In a sharply worded dissent, however, Associate Justices Patricia Timmons-Goodson and Robin Hudson said denying the inmates' release contradicts DOC policy and violates the inmates' rights.

"The undisputed record reflects that Jones has fully served his term of imprisonment and is thereby entitled to immediate, unconditional release. The decision to the contrary offends all notions of fundamental fairness," Timmons-Goodson wrote.

The case that started the controversy last fall is still awaiting review by a Cumberland County judge.

Bobby Bowden was initially sentenced to die for a 1975 murder, but the sentence was later changed to life in prison. The state Court of Appeals supported his argument that the 1974 law made him eligible for release, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the state's appeal.

126 Comments

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  • SomeRandomGuy Aug 27, 7:48 p.m.

    Life=80 years (or did according to DOC). Most of the people that fell under that directive have been in prison for 30(ish) years. They got FIFTY years off for "good" behavior???

  • Tarheelfan13 Aug 27, 7:09 p.m.

    This state supreme court decision will likely be overturned in federal court. The federal court judges are not elected but are distinguished professionals appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They make rulings based on the rule of law and not on public opinion. North Carolina has changed the rules after the fact and the federal courts will likely acknowledge North Carolina to be in violation of ex post facto and likely order the release of the inmates.

  • Vietnam Vet Aug 27, 6:51 p.m.

    "The undisputed record reflects that Jones has fully served his term of imprisonment and is thereby entitled to immediate, unconditional release. The decision to the contrary offends all notions of fundamental fairness," Timmons-Goodson wrote.

    Correct me if I'm wrong but Department of Corrections policy is NOT law? If you're sentenced to life in prison then as far as I'm concerned, you get out when you stop breathing and not before. I do call this a victory because there are dozens of inmates that are still in prison!

  • HeBlessesMe Aug 27, 6:11 p.m.

    Got a question for all of you so happy with this decision...how many convicted killers currently live in your neighborhood? Bet you'll never know unless you really do your research. There are many people walking the streets everyday after committing heinous and malicious crimes, they make a plea bargain and their life sentence becomes 5-10 years. And then they are our in 3 years. Yes, it happens EVERY day!!!! So I'm sorry to say, but this is no true "victory".

    By the way, I feel that the courts got it wrong in may wreckless vehicular homicides....they knew better (passing stopped school buses or driving way too fast) killed another child or their friends, and got a slap on the wrist. I'm more afraid of them than these inmate because they may do it again. They never learn their lesson!!!!!

  • whatusay Aug 27, 5:54 p.m.

    God forgives, I don't have to. Laws should not have loop-holes and killers should "NEVER" be released back into society. The judges that interpreted the law to release these killers should resign and take up something they might be good at.

  • Bartmeister Aug 27, 5:52 p.m.

    Can't ya just hear an appeal to the US Supreme Court now?? More tax payer money down the drain. They're in prison and STILL costing us more money.

  • skiallyr Aug 27, 5:22 p.m.

    These are probably the same judges that told us the inmates have a right to cable TV and air conditioning and better yet, a humane method of execution.

  • CuriousT Aug 27, 5:14 p.m.

    gregg45 -

    Forgiveness isn't about an absence of consequences. A lot of people get that confused.

  • superman Aug 27, 4:49 p.m.

    Just ask the inmates. Not a single one will admit they are guilty.

  • Road-wearier Aug 27, 4:44 p.m.

    "N.C. is slow to execute"

    Good thing, too. Just ask Alan Gell and Daniel Taylor...two innocent men on death row.

    I have no qualms about people staying in prison vs execution. Execute 'em and they're out of it, no longer having to live with what they've done and live without drawing a breath of freedom. Execution is the easy way out for a killer. I want them to live with what they've done, just as the victim's family must live with what was done.

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