RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Beverly Perdue said late Thursday that she has no plans to release 20 prison inmates next week, despite the appellate court's decision that would mean that they had served out their life sentences and should be freed.
"While I understand the decision of the Supreme Court, I believe there remain unresolved legal issues that were not addressed," Perdue said in a statement. "Until these new legal issues have been resolved by the courts ... (the) violent offenders will not be released."
Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that a state law from 1970s defined a life sentence as 80 years and that, when good-behavior credits were included, some inmates had completed their sentence. The law was changed a few years later.
Under the ruling, the inmates are set to be released next Thursday.
North Carolina prison officials have spent recent days double-checking the good behavior credits to determine whether the 20 felons are even eligible for such credits.
Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said Thursday that the Department of Correction is verifying that the credits were "lawfully and correctly applied." Officials are "exploring every angle," she said.
Correction spokesman Keith Acree said staffers began searching records several days ago, and state lawyers also are looking at ways to keep the 19 men and one woman behind bars.
"If the lawyers come back with some radical interpretation that's different from the way we've been doing business over the years, then we don't know what will happen," Acree said.
Perdue, who is on a 12-day trade mission to Japan and China, said in her statement that her legal counsel believes the Department of Correction never had the authority to give inmates a day credit in the 1980s for each day served.
"Like most of my fellow North Carolinians, I believe life should mean life, and even if a life sentence is defined as 80 years, getting out after only 35 is simply unacceptable," she said.
Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a statement late Thursday that there was no deadline for releasing the inmates.
"In the interest of public safety and to ensure that sentences and release dates are properly calculated according to law, we have advised the Department of Correction that no prisoners have to be released until further direction from the courts," Cooper said. "We continue to believe that these prisoners need to remain behind bars, as we have argued for more than two years to the courts.
Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand said in a statement late Thursday that he supports Perdue's reading of the law.
"Our first responsibility is to public safety," Rand said. "Based on our review and as an attorney myself, I am confident that the Department of Correction is under no obligation to release these prisoners next week."
Three state Republican Party leaders sent a letter Thursday to Attorney General Roy Cooper and Correction Secretary Alvin Keller, saying they believed the credits should not apply legally to these 20 prisoners.
"A thorough legal review will show that the department's policy is flat out contrary to the statutes," the letter said.
It's impossible to say at this point whether a mistake would merely keep one of the 20 behind bars a little longer or mean the person would never be released, Acree said.
Longtime defense attorney Joe Cheshire said Thursday that everyone in the justice system – judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys – understood at the time that a life sentence meant 80 years. Later, they also understood the effect of changes in sentencing laws on those 80-year life sentences, he said.
"If someone wanted to complain, the time to do it was then," he said. "You don't go back and change the rules to hurt people because all of the sudden, you don't like the rules that were enacted legally back then."
Perdue said she found the idea of releasing the offenders "one of the most appalling things I've ever heard."
"I find it just unacceptable that it may happen in North Carolina," she said in a telephone interview from Beijing. "I really don't know what the answer is going to be, but everybody I talk to understands clearly that letting them out is not the answer that I'm going to be able to live with."
Later, she joked with reporters about the possibility of being found in contempt of court. "If I go to jail, are you going to visit me? Somebody told me that they were going to bring me cookies."
The state is looking at other ways to keep the prisoners behind bars, including whether one, Steven Wilson, could face new charges related to an accusation in 1990 that he sexually assaulted a girl while on work release, Acree said. Criminal charges were never pursued – Acree said he hasn't been able to find out why – although the Department of Correction did take disciplinary measures, including transferring Wilson to a more secure prison.
Wilson was sentenced to life in prison for abducting and raping a 9-year-old girl in 1977.
Bobby Bowden, the inmate whose lawsuit led to the Supreme Court ruling, has to wait at least until next month for his sentencing to be reheard in Cumberland County. He was convicted in 1975 of two murders.
Judges don't have to schedule a hearing until after Oct. 29, and two Superior Court judges are now conducting lengthy trials and a third has to recuse himself because he represented one of Bowden's co-defendants in the original trial.