12/10/09 — Killer seeks release

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Killer seeks release

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on December 10, 2009 1:46 PM

A Goldsboro man convicted of the mid-1970s murder of a Kinston insurance salesman is one of the prisoners now fighting for his release -- the result of a court decision that is testing the meaning of a "life" sentence in North Carolina.

Alford Jones, 55, was convicted in the murder of insurance salesman William B. Turner in Lenoir County, at a time when insurance salesmen often collected their premiums door to door.

Now, after a decision in the case of State v. Bowden, the legal circumstances have thrown Jones' current life sentence into question.

The cases involving Bowden have drawn political attention as well, with Gov. Bev Perdue issuing an order that Jones and other defendants not be released.

In the Bowden case, "life" sentences were defined as terms of 80 years, and defendants such as Jones maintain that "good behavior" credits count toward a reduction in sentencing.

Jones' attorney, Glenn Barfield of Goldsboro, said those credits mean that his client should have been released on Feb. 7, 2006.

"He's been incarcerated illegally for almost four years," Barfield said in his closing arguments.

District Attorney Branny Vickory said Jones and a few accomplices were accused in the mid-'70s of following Turner through Kinston as he collected his money.

After the insurance salesman had visited a number of homes, Jones and his accomplices confronted Turner, demanding the cash.

"They knew he'd have money on him," Vickory said. "They came up to him at that last house and pulled a shotgun on him."

When the murder victim reached into his pocket, Jones shot him in the chest with a small-gauge sawed-off shotgun, the district attorney said.

Turner suffered a slow death in the hospital after the shooting, Vickory said.

"It was a lingering-type death," he said, explaining that the man was treated in the hospital for about three weeks before he died.

At the time, Jones was sentenced to death for the first-degree murder. All convictions for first-degree murder in that era were assigned the death penalty in North Carolina.

Then, in the 1976 case of Woodson v. North Carolina, a U.S. Supreme Court decision changed that.

The Supreme Court ruled that assigning the death penalty in all first-degree murder cases did not give judges and juries proper discretion in deciding the fate of defendants.

The result of the Woodson case was the overturning of all death penalty cases.

"All of the cases that were on death row were set aside," Vickory said. "It was a mandatory sentence. First-degree murder, you got death. There wasn't any two ways about it."

After Jones' sentence was commuted to life, he continued to serve his sentence, and was awarded periodically with credits for good behavior.

On Wednesday, Tiare B. Smiley, a special deputy attorney general with the state Department of Justice, argued that people with "life" sentences have never been given credits that would reduce their sentences.

"For the purposes of inmates serving life ... (Department of Correction regulations) doesn't say how to award (credits) or for what purpose. It just says you've got good behavior credits.

"You can't reduce a life sentence," Ms. Smiley said.

But Barfield, the defense attorney, argued that the Bowden case changed all that -- that life sentences amounted to 80 years, and that good behavior credits are valid for all defendants, regardless of whether the prisoner had a "life" sentence.

Because of the Bowden case, Barfield argued, a life sentence no longer means incarceration for the duration of a person's "natural life."

"It wouldn't be the first time that the legislature used a word in a title or a name (in a law), then gave you a definition that you would think the word was sort of counterintuitive. That happens a lot in legislation."

The special deputy attorney general argued that awarding the credits was in the "discretion" of the Department of Correction secretary.

The secretary never knowingly assigned credits toward reducing a sentence for prisoners with a life sentence, Ms. Smiley argued.

"I think the exercise of discretion has to be affirmative," she said. "This is truly (about) separation of power" in branches of government. "It's clear that the courts cannot take this and say, here's the number 80 years, and then say the secretary exercised their discretion and deduct it from 80 years, not unless the court somehow determines the secretary has exercised his discretion."

The judge in the case, Ripley E. Rand, is also sitting on other hearings that involve defendants affected by the Bowden case, including one Friday in Wake County.

A decision in the Jones case will not be made until that hearing takes place, the judge said.