State Politics

In state's prisons, life means life, NC Supreme Court rules

A 65-year-old Fayetteville man convicted of two murders and sentenced to life in prison in the 1970s will stay behind bars for the rest of his life, according to a N.C. Supreme Court ruling.

The justices, in a 4-2 ruling, reversed a decision last year by a three-judge N.C. Court of Appeals panel that supported a Cumberland County Superior Court judge’s decision that a life sentence for inmate Bobby E. Bowden did not necessarily mean he would be imprisoned until his death.

On Aug. 7, 1975, Bowden and a cohort killed a convenience store clerk and a woman who walked in on the robbery while on her way to buy milk and bread. After initially receiving a death sentence, Bowden was sentenced to life in prison at a time when state law capped the maximum time behind bars at 80 years.

In 1981, another law cut sentence lengths in half.

Prisoners could further reduce their sentences by accruing credit for good behavior and other efforts.

Bowden has calculated that he has accrued credit worth six years and 10 months. He has tried several times since 2006 to win release.

In May 2012, Judge Gregory Weeks ordered Bowden’s release despite objections from prosecutors and prison system officials.

The appeals court agreed with Weeks’ and Bowden’s attorneys. The three-judge panel said prison officials calculated a 2009 release date for Bowden, but later reversed themselves after a public outcry over a previous ruling that could have led to the release of more than two dozen convicted killers and rapists. Dozens more could have become eligible in the months and years to come.

But their release was stopped by former Gov. Bev Perdue. She said violent criminals were not eligible to receive good behavior credits and that the credits were accrued only to improve an inmate’s chance for parole.

In a nod to Perdue’s argument, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that life sentences mean the life of the prisoner.

The N.C. Appeals Court said last year that Bowden’s case was different because emails and testimony show the state Department of Correction acknowledged counting the credits for Bowden and told him he would be released on Oct. 29, 2009.

The state attorney general appealed that decision to the N.C. Supreme Court.

In the opinion released Friday, Justice Paul Newby wrote that the credits Bowden received in prison could only bring extra benefits behind bars or move up his eligibility for parole.

Associate Justice Robin Hudson strongly disagreed with the majority, ruling that lower courts made a factual finding that prison officials had applied Bowden’s credits to his release date.

“The State is under no obligation to create or to award credits that reduce a prisoner’s sentence for a crime for which he was lawfully convicted. But once it does so, it cannot then arbitrarily and with no process take those credits back,” Hudson wrote in a dissenting opinion that Associate Justice Cheri Beasley joined.