Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina State Supreme Court on Wednesday heard the cases of two convicted murderers who are challenging their sentences.
Attorneys for Bobby Bowden argued that he should be set free because he was sentenced to life in prison before lawmakers passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which brought structured sentencing to North Carolina.
Bowden, 60, was convicted of killing two people in Cumberland County in 1975. He is serving his sentence at Tillery Correctional Center in Halifax County.
Before the Fair Sentencing Act, a life sentence equated to 80 years in prison. By earning two days toward his release for every day served and with time off for good behavior and work credits, Bowden should be released with no conditions, his lawyers argued.
William Hart, senior deputy attorney general, told the justices that Bowden has consistently been denied parole, so even if he's technically served his time, he shouldn't be released.
Hart also called the previous law ambiguous and said that the 80-year benchmark was used only as to set 20 years as the baseline for initial parole hearings.
Bowden's attorney, Jane Allen, countered that there was nothing unclear about the law, and some of the justices agreed that the language was fairly straightforward.
"It says what it means and it means what it says in the clearest and most direct terms possible," Allen said.
A unanimous decision by the state Court of Appeals backed Bowden's contention that a life sentence handed down before structured sentencing meant 80 years. State officials appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, and a decision is expected within three months.
A ruling in Bowden's favor could affect more than 100 North Carolina inmates sentenced before 1981.
The Department of Correction is worried about longtime inmates who can't earn parole suddenly going free, spokesman Keith Acree said.
"Clearly, the Parole Commission doesn't believe they belong on the streets," Acree said. "That would be a great concern to us and probably should be a concern to the people in the communities where these people might go."
In a second case Wednesday, attorneys for Byron Waring, 23, who was sentenced to death in the 2005 stabbing death of Lauren Redman in Raleigh, argued to the justices that prosecutors were racially biased in selecting a jury for Waring's trial.
At least one black woman was kept off the jury for reasons that don't hold up to scrutiny, attorney Jim Cooney said. But attorneys for the state said prosecutors were justified in rejecting potential jurors.
Waring's death penalty sentence was handed down in 2007, making him the first person sent to death row since a series of legal challenges halted executions in North Carolina.
In May, the Supreme Court ruled that the North Carolina Medical Board cannot discipline physicians for obeying a legal requirement that a doctor to be present at executions. Executions, though, have not resumed, and no inmate has been executed in North Carolina since August 2006.