State forced to free 20 violent criminals

Staff WriterOctober 16, 2009 

  • Over the years, the state legislature has revised the rules for sentencing criminals. The effect of those changes and new court decisions is leading to the pending release of 20 inmates.

    Here are the laws that came into play:

    A 1974 law passed by the General Assembly defined a life sentence as 80 years.

    A 1981 law cut prisoner's sentences in half, reducing life sentences assigned during a stretch of years in the 1970s to 40 years.

    The Department of Correction gives prisoners credit for good behavior, work and education, which can further reduce their sentences.

Twenty murderers, rapists and robbers sentenced to life in North Carolina prisons in the 1970s will be released at the end of October as a result of recent court rulings.

Most of the inmates are in their 50s and 60s, but many of them were convicted years ago of gruesome crimes that might have kept them locked up longer today. One of them successfully petitioned the courts to recognize that old laws defined a life sentence as 80 years, and that another law cut those sentences in half.

Ten of those scheduled to be released were sex offenders, including men who raped young girls. Seven have spent time on death row. The one woman in the group was convicted of murdering a state trooper while fleeing a bank robbery.

State officials said Thursday they have no choice but to release them.

"I am appalled that the state of North Carolina is being forced to release prisoners who have committed the most heinous crimes, without any review of their cases," said Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Thomas Bennett, executive director of the N.C. Victim Assistance Network, worries about the victims' safety and stability.

"This will open new wounds and retraumatize crime victims," Bennett said. "These are bad actors. These are not people we want on the streets."

Perdue's office said she was determined to find a way to keep the inmates in prison, but a spokesman for the state's attorney general said it is unlikely she will prevail.

"Our lawyers have argued just about everything they can think of to keep this from happening," said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper. "The Supreme Court has the final say."

The inmates are scheduled to be released Oct. 29, just 20 days after the N.C. Supreme Court declined to overturn a state Court of Appeals decision that recalculated life sentences applied to crimes committed during the 1970s.

Prison officials expect another eight to 10 inmates a year over the next several years to qualify for release under these new guidelines.

Those inmates due to be released owe their freedom to Bobby Bowden, 60, a former death row inmate convicted in 1975 of killing two Fayetteville men.

In 2005 Bowden appealed to a local judge in Cumberland County, arguing that he had served his "life" sentence. Bowden's pitch failed locally, but last year the state Court of Appeals ruled that Bowden's math was correct. Last week, the state Supreme Court issued a brief upholding the Court of Appeals ruling.

Bowden has spent 36 years in prison. But during a period of years in the 1970s, state law defined a life sentence as 80 years. In 1981, the state's sentencing laws were revised again, applying a retroactive reduction.

Under the changes, sentences levied before 1981 were essentially cut in half. So, dozens of inmates sentenced to life for crimes committed in the 1970s had their terms reduced to 40 years.

Inmates such as Bowden chiseled away at their 40-year sentences even further with "merit time," months and years knocked off their sentences for good behavior, for taking on jobs while in prison and for completing degree programs. All the inmates to be turned loose on Oct. 29 earned some sort of merit credit.

Since 1994, when North Carolina eliminated parole, a life sentence in North Carolina has meant the convict will die behind bars. But only first-degree murder can carry a life sentence, and now, the shortest sentence someone convicted now of first-degree forcible rape can serve is 12 years.

Feverish preparation

State correction officials have been working furiously to prepare the 20 inmates for their release and alert the victims and their families. Staff spent this week urging relatives of these inmates to take them in on Oct. 29. They have also been trying to track down victims, many of whom have long since lost touch with the court system.

"In some cases, there's shock when we call," said Keith Acree, a DOC spokesman. "In other cases, there's uncertainty. In a lot of cases, the best we can do is leave a message on a machine."

In the meantime, Acree said, some local prosecutors and police are rifling through old court files, looking for crimes with which they never bothered to charge these defendants. Other officials are running the inmates' names in a national crime database to see if they are wanted on crimes outside North Carolina.

"They are looking for any sort of issue that will allow these people to stay locked up," Acree said.

Bowden, the inmate who launched this battle, may be one of the last to leave.

The Court of Appeals sent his case back to a Cumberland County judge to calculate his exact "life sentence" using the new formula. The judge may not have time to figure that new number soon enough for Bowden to join the others leaving prison at the end of the month.

News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.

mandy.locke@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8927

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