RALEIGH — The state Supreme Court must mull again whether criminals sentenced to life in prison for murder, rape and other crimes during a four-year period in the 1970s are truly lifers.
Between 1974 and 1978, a sentence to life in prison was defined as 80 years behind bars. With credits for good behavior and productive work, some lifers contend they should be able to be freed in half that time.
Nearly two years ago, the states highest court ruled that public safety concerns outweighed other values such as sentencing fairness when deciding that prisoners convicted of first-degree murder during that four-year period were not eligible for early release.
On Thursday, the justices had two different cases before them those of Clyde Vernon Lovette and Charles Lynch but the challenges of their sentences were grounded in the same era of sentencing.
Both cases were from Guilford County.
Lovette, 56, pleaded guilty to a 1978 second-degree murder. The judge who sentenced him said evidence showed that he had strangled a 4-year-old boy with a rope and should never be paroled.
Lynch, 61, was convicted of two counts of second-degree burglary. He broke into a womans home in 1978 while she was away, assaulted her when she returned, then broke into another house and stole a necklace.
Each received life imprisonment.
For many years, though, the state Department of Correction has had a system through which prisoners could earn credits for good conduct or extra work that reduced their sentences.
The credits could help determine parole eligibility and reduce their time in prison if a resentencing were to occur.
In their cases, Lovette and Lynch have argued that they had earned so many credits while in prison that their original 80-year life sentence term had diminished to about 30 by 2009. They are seeking release.
In June 2011, Allen Baddour, a Superior Court judge presiding over a hearing in Wake County, found that the men had served their life sentences after credits had been applied.
But the state challenged that ruling.
Last year, the state Court of Appeals upheld the trial courts decision in a 2-1 ruling that was appealed to the state Supreme Court.
On Thursday, the justices had many questions for Sarah Jessica Farber, an attorney from North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services representing Lovette and Lynch.
Justice Paul Newby said he was struggling with how, after the 2010 ruling that barred the release of first-degree murderers, other lifers from the 1970s could be treated differently.
What is our authority to distinguish between two groups who were both sentenced to life in prison? Newby asked Farber.
Farber argued that the inmates were in different categories, that one group of cases involved first-degree murderers and that the two Guilford County cases were different based on the crimes.
That is the solitary difference, she said.
Joseph Finarelly, an assistant attorney general representing the state, argued otherwise. He contended the lifers were not eligible for early release because of the earlier decision.
The General Assembly revised sentencing laws in the 1980s and 1990s, so the arguments apply to a limited number of cases.
There are 122 prisoners who received life sentences defined as 80 years in the state prisons during the mid-1970s, according to the correction department.
In addition to Lovette and Lynch, 13 other inmates have petitioned for their release under a similar argument.