Local News

Appeals court removes roadblock to 'life' inmates' release

Posted December 17, 2009 2:53 p.m. EST
Updated December 17, 2009 8:57 p.m. EST

— The North Carolina Court of Appeals on Thursday ordered that a temporary stay blocking the release of two convicted killers be lifted at 5 p.m. Friday.

That means attorneys for the state has until then to appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court to keep Alford Jones and Faye Brown – two of several dozen inmates serving life sentences under a 1970s law – in prison.

Both inmates were sentenced under the 1974 law that defined a life sentence as 80 years. Attorneys for both argued last week that the old law, combined with good-behavior credits, mean their clients' prison terms are complete.

The appellate court gave no explanation for its decision.

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Attorney General's Office, said attorneys were preparing to file petitions with the state's high. A spokeswoman for Gov. Beverly Perdue, who has adamantly opposed the release of any of the life inmates, said the state has filed petitions with the Supreme Court.

"Gov. Perdue will continue to fight the inmates' release. She still believes any release needs to be part of a system that reviews records before inmates are released," spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said.

On Monday, Superior Court Judge Ripley Rand ruled that the Department of Correction wrongly interpreted its regulation on the sentence-reduction credits but could have limited how those credits could be used.

"It did not," he wrote in his ruling.

Correction officials have said that state law prohibits felons serving life prison 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.

A few hours before Rand's 5 p.m. deadline Monday, the Attorney General's Office persuaded the appeals court to keep Jones and Brown in prison until judges there could hear arguments.

"This order will for the first time ever in the history of North Carolina require our Secretary of Correction to unconditionally release an inmate serving a life sentence," Special Deputy Attorney General Tiare B. Smiley wrote in the motion for the temporary stay.

Rand's decision was a blow to Perdue's attempt to keep the inmates in prison. State officials say they are concerned because they will be released unconditionally without any kind of supervision.

"I'm furious," the governor told reporters Monday while visiting Camp Lejeune, vowing again to try to stop the release. "I have been really angry about this whole process."

Thomas Bennett, executive director of the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network, told The Associated Press that the inmates should not be released because of a "loophole" in the law. But he acknowledged the state may have a losing legal battle.

"For the sake of the victims, I hope that this (Supreme Court) petition succeeds," he said. "There's a lot of hurt and anger and bitterness out there."