NC court: Lifers should serve life sentences
RALEIGH — Inmates will likely stay locked up for the rest of their lives for murder, rape and other crimes that happened during a period in the 1970s when state law defined a life term as 80 years behind bars, after a North Carolina Supreme Court ruling Friday.
The high court reversed a lower court's ruling that ordered many inmates released.
People sentenced to life between 1974 and 1978 were ordered to serve the 80 years, but had the opportunity to reduce that time by decades through 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, despite whatever credits they earned. The latest ruling applies to inmates whose offenses were below premeditated murder.
The case was filed by inmates Clyde Lovette and Charles Lynch, both from Guilford County. Their lawyer, Sarah Jessica Farber of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.
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 Division 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.
Seven types of inmates were banned from earning sentence reduction credits, but those 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, but about a dozen of those have since had their release revoked and been returned to prison, according to the state.