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Inmates wait after governor blocks release order

Twenty-seven violent offenders scheduled to walk out of prison Thursday because of a loophole in state law are now waiting while the state tries to resolve legal issues associated with their release.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — James Pone planned to attend church with his mother this Sunday and start a new life with his girlfriend.

The 48-year-old convicted murderer has spent 30 years in prison for fatally shooting a Bladen County cab driver in 1978.

He was expecting to be released in March after successfully completing a pre-release program but learned earlier this month that he would walk out of prison sooner than expected.

"I know that everyone will not agree with me getting out. I know that, but I ask that they give me a chance," Pone said last week. "I can't speak for other people, but for myself I'm not going to hurt anybody ever again." (Hear more from Pone.)

Now, he will have to wait.

Pone is one of 27 inmates in North Carolina who were scheduled to be released Thursday due to a ruling on a decades-old law that appeared to define life sentences as only 80 years long.

With credits for good behavior, attorneys for another inmate argued that sentences under the law could be as short as 40 years. The state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court agreed, and the state Department of Correction identified 26 men and one woman who qualified for release.

Gov. Beverly Perdue balked.

She has ordered DOC officials not to release Pone or any of the other inmates, and DOC spokesman Keith Acree said this week there are no immediate plans to do so.

The potential releases upset some people, partially because all but one of the inmates would be freed without any post-release supervision.

Perdue has vowed to fight the release of the inmates. Defense attorney Duncan McMillan disagrees with her stance.

“The law as written should be implemented. I wasn't surprised at the governor's stance. I don't think she will prevail in any attempt to keep these folks in prison,” McMillan said.

Perdue has taken issue with the good-behavior credits.

In 1981, the Legislature passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which offered inmates the chance to shorten their sentences by crediting them with a day for each day of good behavior. It only applied to crimes committed in 1981 or later. Those serving life sentences did not qualify.

Then, in 1983, then-DOC Secretary James Woodward expanded the "day-for-a-day" rule to apply to those convicted before 1981, including those serving life terms.

Perdue said in a statement that her legal counsel believes the DOC never had the authority to change the rule.

But McMillan said he thinks the inmates will be released.

“There comes a point in time when a person is going to simply max out the sentence imposed. When the person maxes out the sentence, he is bound by the law to be released. And I don't see that there is a way around it,” McMillan said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina agrees.

"Our governor and attorney general have sworn an oath to uphold the laws as they were actually written at the time they were applied, not as they wish they were written," ALU-NC President Carlos Mahoney said in a statement Thursday.

"We remind them of their oath and call upon them to respect the rule of the law rather than sacrifice the Constitution for political expediency."

The DOC is working to notify victims of these offenders. Victims who haven't yet been contacted by DOC can call the Office of Victim Services at 1-866-719-0108.


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