RALEIGH, N.C. — 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.
"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.