Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina plans to release 20 longtime inmates because of a ruling on a decades-old law that appeared to define life sentences as only 80 years long.
Gov. Beverly Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said Thursday that the state plans to set the inmates free Oct. 29. Perdue, she said, is talking with legal counsel to see if there are options to prevent the release.
"I’m appalled that the state of North Carolina is being forced to release prisoners who have committed the most heinous of crimes, without any review of their cases,” Perdue said in a news release. “I don’t believe the General Assembly’s intent in 1974 was to let these violent offenders out of prison early. Releasing these potentially dangerous criminals is not in the best interest of the state or our citizens.”
One inmate, Bobby Bowden, had argued that a law adopted in 1974 clearly defined life sentences as 80 years. The convicted murder believed that the statute, combined with good conduct credits, means his life sentence is now complete.
The Court of Appeals sided with Bowden last year. North Carolina's Supreme Court rejected an appeal from the state earlier this month after a lawyer from the attorney general's office had argued that the 80 years likely was supposed to determine when somebody would be eligible for parole.
Justices on the high court balked at that argument, and an attorney for Bowden called it "legal gymnastics." The statute, which was in place for several years in the 1970s, says: "A sentence of life imprisonment shall be considered as a sentence of imprisonment for a term of 80 years in the state's prison."
Bowden was convicted in 1975 and initially sentenced to death. The Supreme Court later took him off death row, sending the case back for Bowden to get concurrent life sentences. He has been denied parole every year since 1987.
Steven C. Wilson, 52, is among the inmates set to be released. Wilson was convicted in 1978 in the kidnapping and first-degree rape of a 9-year-old girl.
Faye B. Brown, 56, is also being released after being convicted in 1977 of first-degree murder. Authorities said Brown and two co-defendants robbed a bank in Williamston in 1975. While fleeing the scene, the suspects shot and killed state Trooper Guy Davis.
Brown will have 20 years of federal parole to serve after she is released.
"We're very displeased by the decision. She murdered Trooper Davis in cold blood. We do not think she should be released. We're extremely disappointed," North Carolina Highway Patrol spokesman Capt. Everett Clendenin said.
Brown is one of seven of the inmates to be released that were originally sentenced to death.
“Year after year, they’ve come up for review and been denied parole. Today, after this ruling, they can be released without any parole review, without any recommendation from the parole commission and without any supervision after they have been released. This is where our concern lies,” Pearson said.
The Department of Correction is attempting to notify victims of these crimes. Victims who have not been contacted are asked to call the DOC Office of Victim Services at 1-866-719-0108.
Thomas Bennett, executive director of the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network, said the plan to release the prisoners is dangerous.
"This group of people is a threat to every citizen in North Carolina," Bennett said. "They should not be released."
Department of Correction spokesman Keith Acree said some of the released inmates may find themselves committing new crimes.
"There are certainly some people on the list that are going to find themselves committing new crimes," Acree said. "Some of them will get out and do fine. Some of them won't."
Corrections officials have worried that the case could eventually affect some 120 inmates sentenced when the law was in place.