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NC Supreme Court: Life sentences mean life in prison

Posted December 19, 2014

Bobby Bowden

— The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Friday that a convicted killer serving a life sentence under a 40-year-old law cannot use credits for good behavior to reduce the length of his sentence.

The court reversed a 2013 ruling from the state Court of Appeals, which had upheld a Superior Court judge's ruling that Bobby Bowden, 65, be released from prison under a 1974 North Carolina law that defined a life sentence as 80 years in prison.

Bowden is serving two concurrent life sentences for the Aug. 7, 1975, shootings at a Cumberland County convenience store. He was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of armed robbery on Dec. 15, 1975.

Before the state's Fair Sentencing Act, which took effect in 1994, guidelines allowed prisoners to earn credit toward their release for good behavior.

Bowden's lawyers contend that he has earned enough credits to be eligible for release without conditions. Numerous other inmates whose death sentences were commuted to life in prison under the old law have made similar arguments in recent years.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 4-2 decision, however, that Bowden isn't eligible to have his sentence reduced. The credits he receives in prison can only earn him extra benefits behind bars or move up his parole eligibility, Associate Justice Paul Newby wrote in the court's opinion.

"The (state prison system) has never applied these credits towards the calculation of an unconditional release date for a (similarly situated) inmate. Therefore, we hold that defendant ... remains lawfully incarcerated and is not entitled to release," Newby wrote.

Four years ago, the court reached a similar conclusion in the cases of two other convicted killers, ruling that state prisons officials and the parole board should determine when inmates get out.

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 dissent that Associate Justice Cheri Beasley joined.


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  • lessismore Dec 19, 2014

    And, illegal means illegal, but not according to Obama.

  • Amy LaFluer Dec 19, 2014
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    The laws have changed since 1975...We are tougher on crime than we was back them and have revamped are sentences which are a lot better now but we still have to deal with our mistakes of the past.

  • Amy LaFluer Dec 19, 2014
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    They do have without parole now but they didn't back in the day. Last of the few cases like that still in the system.

  • Danny Cole Dec 19, 2014
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    Sorry DCats, but no court had ruled on this situation before. Now that the State Supreme Court has ruled that a person with a life sentence cannot get credits for good behavior to earn an early release then no law has been changed and no law has in fact been increased. It only changed how credits were applied to lesser sentences.

  • Pensive01 Dec 19, 2014

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    Perhaps all life sentences should have "without parole" added behind the word life. Then there would be no one trying to use ambiguity as a means of trying to get someone out of prison, as it would be utterly clear that a life sentence means that upon conviction a person will be spending the rest of the life behind bars.

  • SFSOLDIER Dec 19, 2014

    Finally, a common sense Judge!! THANK YOU!! The guys is where he belongs...in jail!! Not out amongst us!!

  • Norman Lewis Dec 19, 2014
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    Concurrent sentences need to be eliminated. Total up the time for each crime committed and that will equal the criminals total sentence. So under the law in effect at the time of the crime, he would serve 160 years for the murders and whatever else for the robbery charge.

  • Karen Orndorff Dec 19, 2014
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    You did the crime you do the time.

  • 678devilish Dec 19, 2014

    Judges rule differently because they can!

  • CherryDarling Dec 19, 2014

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    You would think...