updated 1/26/2005 11:22:41 AM ET 2005-01-26T16:22:41

A ruling by the Delaware Supreme Court could free nearly 200 inmates serving life terms for murder, rape and kidnapping — a decision that has drawn impassioned protests from victims’ families and lawmakers.

The court’s decision that some life sentences should be considered 45-year terms applies only to life-with-parole sentences handed down for crimes committed before Delaware clarified its sentencing laws in mid-1990.

On Tuesday, the state House unanimously passed a bill declaring the ruling “null and void,” although lawmakers acknowledged the measure may violate the separation of powers.

“I have some severe doubts about the constitutionality of this piece of legislation,” said Rep. Robert Valihura, a Republican from Wilmington. “That said, I rise in support of this legislation because we have to do something. ... If this is unconstitutional, we have bought ourselves some time.”

The vote came after lawmakers heard pleas from victims’ families. Greg Whaley said his grandparents were killed in 1961 and his family recently learned that the man who was responsible — and who publicly vowed to kill others if he was ever freed — could be released in four weeks.

“I thought one of the functions of government was to protect the citizens,” Whaley said.

Life with parole considered 45 years
Before 1990, a sentence of life with parole was considered a 45-year term for purposes of calculating good time credit and setting a parole date. Prosecutors maintained that if an inmate was repeatedly denied parole, he could be held until he died.

The state Supreme Court disagreed in November, saying a lifer must be released after he has served 45 years, minus time off for good behavior. The high court refused to reconsider that ruling last week.

Delaware Attorney General M. Jane Brady decried the ruling.

“Now, the Delaware Supreme Court has interpreted the law to mean that life isn’t life — it is 45 years, and that the 45-year sentence can be reduced by good time,” Brady said in a statement. “The practical effect of which is to reduce these life sentences to as little as 26 years despite a denial of parole.”

The decision came in the case of Ward Evans, who was convicted in 1982 of rape and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Evans was denied parole three times before he argued that he should have a release date calculated as if he had a 45-year sentence.

Brady said the ruling would affect nearly 200 inmates. It does not affect inmates sentenced to life without parole for first-degree murder.

In the measure passed Tuesday, the House said the court erroneously applied the 45-year criteria to the conditional release statute and misinterpreted the intent of the legislature. The initiative now goes before the state Senate and then must be approved by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.

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