RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments about inmates seeking freedom from their decades-old life sentences.
As family members of murder victims looked on, justices peppered attorneys for two inmates and the state with questions about the intent of the 1974 law, which defined a life sentence as 80 years.
Jane Allen, an attorney for inmates Faye Brown and Alford Jones, contended that they have earned sentence-reduction credits to lower the 80-year terms to the point where they've served the entire sentence.
"We are a nation of laws, not arbitrariness, tyranny or whims," Allen said. "No one – not the (Department of Correction), not the Attorney General – can simply choose to treat the law as if it's nothing more than a series of items on the buffet line at the local Golden Corral."
Assistant Attorney General Robert Montgomery said the sentences are still considered "life" terms, and the state doesn't apply such credits to inmates serving life sentences.
"No one believed that this petitioner had an unconditional release date, and all the evidence shows that the (Department of Correction) secretary did not believe that and never awarded these credits," Montgomery said.
A Superior Court judge ruled in December that both Brown and Jones should be released immediately from the life sentences they received in the 1970s. Another judge ruled in a separate suit that a third inmate must remain in jail to serve his life sentence because the state doesn't use behavior credits to cut the length of life sentences.
A Supreme Court decision could affect the cases of dozens of convicts like Brown and Jones who received life sentences between 1974 and 1978.
Ollie Williams, whose mother was killed by another inmate who could be released if the Supreme Court upholds the prisoners' argument, said the feelings of victims' families are getting lost in the shuffle.
"I just feel like they'll do it again," Williams said. "Our family members have lost their lives. I just don't think that it's fair. I don't believe that they should be released."
Gov. Beverly Perdue has vowed to fight the inmate releases, saying they should be handled through the state parole board and be subject to post-release supervision.
Brown is currently being held at Raleigh Correctional Center for Women. She was sentenced for her role in the shooting death of a state trooper during a bank robbery in 1975.
Jones is currently at New Hanover Correctional Center in Wilmington. He was convicted in the January 1975 shooting of William B. Turner Sr.