Two convicted killers believe their life sentences are finished, and they should be set free.
In the case of Brown versus the NC Department of Correction, an inmate convicted of involvement in the death of a state trooper wants her freedom based on good behavior credits she earned during her years behind bars.
The state and Governor Beverly Perdue say no way.
Faye Brown's call for release is based on a lower court ruling that defines life in prison as 80 years. The ruling is based on a law that was passed in the 1970s. It was in effect when Brown and others suing for their freedom were convicted.
Justices on Tuesday questioned the meaning of the 1970s law. An attorney for two of the inmates said the law simply defines their sentences as 80 years and they've earned sentence-reduction credits to lower those terms further.
But lawyers for the state disagreed.
"This class of inmates received a life sentence," said Robert Montgomery, an attorney for the state. "That fact cannot be changed."
Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson noted that the "life" terms were qualified by an 80-year limit. The statute says that "a sentence of life imprisonment shall be considered as a sentence of imprisonment for a term of 80 years in the state's prison."
"It has been defined differently, but you continue to talk in terms as 'life sentence, life sentence, life sentence,"' Timmons-Goodson said.
Jane Allen, an attorney for inmates Alford Jones and Faye Brown, summed up her argument by declaring: "The Legislature said this is a sentence of 80-year incarceration. Period."
But Justice Mark Martin dismissed her simplicity: "It's a little more confusing than that, because they call it 'life."'
Allen contends that the inmates have thousands of days of good-time and gain-time credits that lower their terms to completion. Attorneys for the state concede that the inmates earned and "stored" credits but that the Department of Correction has never applied discounts to those with life terms.
If the state is forced to apply credits earned behind bars to reduce the length of sentences, more than two dozen inmates could immediately qualify for release. Many of them are convicted murderers and rapists. More could be released in the months and years to come.
The state attorney general's office lost a preliminary round of arguments before the state's high court in September, and a lower-court judge ruled in December that Jones and Brown should immediately be set free. State lawyers did recently find some success late last year when Superior Court Judge Gentry Caudill determined that the Department of Correction secretary has discretion in how to award good behavior credits, and said the secretary has decided not to apply those discounts to release the "life" prisoners early.
Justices also heard arguments from lawyers for a second inmate hoping for freedom - Alfred Jones. Jones was convicted of killing William B. Turner Sr., who was shot in the chest during an attempted robbery in January 1975.