The North Carolina Court of Appeals on Monday temporarily blocked the release of two convicted murderers sentenced to life in prison under a 1970s law, issuing an order an hour before they were to be set free.
The court of appeals clerk gave no explanation for the decision.
Earlier Monday, a Superior Court judge mandated the 5 p.m. release of Alford Jones and Faye Brown, who were sentenced when North Carolina defined life terms as only 80 years. The inmates argued they also earned a variety of sentence-reduction credits, and that their terms were now complete.
Gov. Beverly Perdue was "furious" with the lower court's ruling, and attorneys for the state scrambled to appeal.
"This is not how government and courts are supposed to work for the people of North Carolina," said Perdue, who was surrounded by Highway Patrol leaders and the head of a victims advocacy group. "I've been in politics a long time, and I've never been this disgusted with the system in my life."
There are some two dozen other inmates who are in similar situations to Jones and Brown.
State lawyers had argued that the credits awarded to Jones and Brown were to be used for parole eligibility and other matters. They also said the Correction Department has never given sentence-reduction credits to inmates with life sentences.
Superior Court Judge Ripley Rand disagreed. He said the inmates were allowed to and did receive credits that should be applied to the 80-year terms.
"The Department of Correction could have put into effect rules awarding sentence reduction credits only for the purposes of parole eligibility, custody determinations, and sentence commutation calculations and not for the calculation of an unconditional release date," Rand wrote. "It did not."
Jones was convicted of killing William B. Turner Sr., who was shot in the chest during an attempted robbery in January 1975. Brown was sentenced for her role in the 1975 shooting death of a state trooper during a bank robbery.
Highway Patrol Col. Randy Glover said Brown's involvement showed a lack of respect. "We are not expendable," Glover said.
Sarah Jessica Farber, an attorney for the two inmates, said she was hopeful the appeals court would eventually rule in their favor.
"It's really straightforward and reflects what we've said all along: This is pretty simple," she said.