Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Charlotte lawyer defends judge on inmate releases

Gov. Bev Perdue has been sharply critical of a series of court rulings that may result in the release of some murderers and other inmates sentenced to life in prison back in the 1970s, but a Charlotte attorney serving as president of the N.C. Bar Association says the judges in those cases were doing nothing other than performing their constitutional duty to interpret the law and rule accordingly.

Lawyer John R. Wester, a partner in the firm of Robinson, Bradshaw and Hinson, said the criticism this week of Wake Superior Court Judge Ripley Rand was "unfair and unfounded." Rand -- son of Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, whom Perdue has named to be chairman of the state Post Release Supervisory and Parole Commission after he steps down at the end of this year from the Senate -- ruled Monday that two life-sentence inmates should be released immediately. The state appealed that decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals, which stayed their release pending a review of Rand's decision. Perdue had called the pending release of prisoners "disgusting" and said she was angry that they were to be freed without supervision.

Wester took a different view. The N.C. Bar Association issued a statement including these comments:

“Criticism regarding Judge Rand in his ruling Monday is unfair and unfounded,” stated NCBA President John Wester in response to comments made by Gov. Bev Perdue. “In the midst of a highly charged situation, Judge Rand has performed his constitutional duty in ordering the release of these inmates.

“Regardless of how one feels personally about this matter, it is the duty of the judicial branch to interpret the statutes of this state as enacted by our legislators and signed into law by our governor. Contrary to the heartfelt opinion of Gov. Perdue, this is exactly how the government and the courts are supposed to work for our people under our constitution.”

To that end, the NCBA reiterates its position that due process continue now that Judge Rand’s ruling has been appealed to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Rand ordered the release of the inmates because they were convicted under a law that at the time defined life in prison as 80 years. During that time, inmates would be eligible for parole if approved by the state parole commission. Subsequent changes in sentencing laws by the legislature essentially cut sentences for those already in prison by half, and authorized accumulation of good-time and gain-time credits for inmates that would further shorten their sentences. The Perdue administration argued that it never applied those time-off credits to the actual release date of life-sentence inmates convicted under the old law. Such credits applied only to the date inmates would be eligible to go before the parole commission. But Judge Rand ruled that the regulations in place did not make any such distinction, and said the plain language of the rules showed that the administration was in error in failing to apply them to life sentences being served by inmates convicted under the old law.