State Supreme Court to decide on life sentences
North Carolina's Supreme Court will decide whether to release criminals sentenced to life in prison for murder, rape and other crimes at a time in the 1970s when a life term was defined by law as 80 years behind bars.
The high court must decide whether criminals sentenced to life between 1974 and 1978 will never be released, or could get out after a long sentence. If the 80-year maximum applies, lifers from that era could get out in less than half that time thanks to credits earned for good behavior and productive work behind bars.
The Supreme Court ruled two years ago that those convicted of first-degree murder shouldn't be released early despite whatever credits they earned because concern for public safety outweighs other values such as sentencing fairness. On Thursday, the high court heard from criminals whose offenses were somewhat less horrible than premeditated murder.
Justice Paul Newby said he was grappling with how, after deciding first-degree murderers couldn't be released, another group of lifers from the 1970s could be treated differently. Judges at that time had much greater sentencing discretion. The General Assembly revised sentencing laws in the 1980s and 1990s under pressure from lawsuits accusing overcrowded prisons of unconstitutional cruel punishment.
"The sentences having been rendered by the trial courts, what is our authority to distinguish between two groups who were both sentenced to life in prison?" Newby asked the attorney for Guilford County criminals Clyde Lovette and Charles Lynch.
"The authority is that they were sentenced for different crimes," attorney Sarah Jessica Farber said. "That is the solitary difference."
Lovette, 56, pleaded guilty to a 1978 second-degree murder. The judge who sentenced him said evidence showed that the 21-year-old strangled a 4-year-old boy with a rope and that he "should never be paroled."
Lynch, 61, was convicted of two counts of second-degree burglary. He broke into a victim's home in 1978 while she was away, then assaulted her when she returned. He also broke into another victim's home and stole a necklace.
The state's Department of Correction has long had a system that allowed prisoners to earn credits for good conduct, called good time, and for working extra in prison kitchens or other jobs, called gained time, that would reduce their sentences.
In the case of prison lifers, the credits were used to determine parole eligibility, whether they'd enjoy reduced custody restrictions, and to reduce their incarceration if they were later resentenced to a fixed number of years, the agency said.
"DOC had never applied sentence reduction credits to life sentences, regardless of the crime, for purposes of the calculation of unconditional release date," said attorney Joseph Finarelli, who represented the state.
Seven types of inmate were banned from earning sentence reduction credits, but the inmates sentenced during the 1970s period when "life" meant 80 years weren't among them.
Lovette and Lynch argued to the high court that they had earned so many credits that their original 80-year life sentence term had diminished to around 30 by 2009 and they should be released. The court is not expected to make a decision for several months.
Thirteen other inmates also have petitioned for their release under the same argument. Prosecutors say six were originally sentenced to death for rape. Three inmates got multiple life terms.
There are 122 prisoners who received life sentences defined as 80 years during the mid-1970s currently in the state's prisons, the correction department said. Another 26 were paroled at some point, but about a dozen of those have since had their paroles revoked and been returned to prison, the department said.