State News

Perdue has no plans to release life inmates

Posted October 22, 2009
Updated November 19, 2009

— Gov. Beverly Perdue said late Thursday that she has no plans to release 20 prison inmates next week, despite the appellate court's decision that would mean that they had served out their life sentences and should be freed.

"While I understand the decision of the Supreme Court, I believe there remain unresolved legal issues that were not addressed," Perdue said in a statement. "Until these new legal issues have been resolved by the courts ... (the) violent offenders will not be released."

James Pone Inmate speaks on pending release

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that a state law from 1970s defined a life sentence as 80 years and that, when good-behavior credits were included, some inmates had completed their sentence. The law was changed a few years later.

Under the ruling, the inmates are set to be released next Thursday.

North Carolina prison officials have spent recent days double-checking the good behavior credits to determine whether the 20 felons are even eligible for such credits.

Gov. Beverly Perdue Perdue: 'Life should mean life'

Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said Thursday that the Department of Correction is verifying that the credits were "lawfully and correctly applied." Officials are "exploring every angle," she said.

Correction spokesman Keith Acree said staffers began searching records several days ago, and state lawyers also are looking at ways to keep the 19 men and one woman behind bars.

"If the lawyers come back with some radical interpretation that's different from the way we've been doing business over the years, then we don't know what will happen," Acree said.

Perdue, who is on a 12-day trade mission to Japan and China, said in her statement that her legal counsel believes the Department of Correction never had the authority to give inmates a day credit in the 1980s for each day served.

"Like most of my fellow North Carolinians, I believe life should mean life, and even if a life sentence is defined as 80 years, getting out after only 35 is simply unacceptable," she said.

Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a statement late Thursday that there was no deadline for releasing the inmates.

"In the interest of public safety and to ensure that sentences and release dates are properly calculated according to law, we have advised the Department of Correction that no prisoners have to be released until further direction from the courts," Cooper said. "We continue to believe that these prisoners need to remain behind bars, as we have argued for more than two years to the courts.

Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand said in a statement late Thursday that he supports Perdue's reading of the law.

"Our first responsibility is to public safety," Rand said. "Based on our review and as an attorney myself, I am confident that the Department of Correction is under no obligation to release these prisoners next week."

Three state Republican Party leaders sent a letter Thursday to Attorney General Roy Cooper and Correction Secretary Alvin Keller, saying they believed the credits should not apply legally to these 20 prisoners.

"A thorough legal review will show that the department's policy is flat out contrary to the statutes," the letter said.

It's impossible to say at this point whether a mistake would merely keep one of the 20 behind bars a little longer or mean the person would never be released, Acree said.

Longtime defense attorney Joe Cheshire said Thursday that everyone in the justice system – judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys – understood at the time that a life sentence meant 80 years. Later, they also understood the effect of changes in sentencing laws on those 80-year life sentences, he said.

"If someone wanted to complain, the time to do it was then," he said. "You don't go back and change the rules to hurt people because all of the sudden, you don't like the rules that were enacted legally back then."

Perdue said she found the idea of releasing the offenders "one of the most appalling things I've ever heard."

"I find it just unacceptable that it may happen in North Carolina," she said in a telephone interview from Beijing. "I really don't know what the answer is going to be, but everybody I talk to understands clearly that letting them out is not the answer that I'm going to be able to live with."

Later, she joked with reporters about the possibility of being found in contempt of court. "If I go to jail, are you going to visit me? Somebody told me that they were going to bring me cookies."

The state is looking at other ways to keep the prisoners behind bars, including whether one, Steven Wilson, could face new charges related to an accusation in 1990 that he sexually assaulted a girl while on work release, Acree said. Criminal charges were never pursued – Acree said he hasn't been able to find out why – although the Department of Correction did take disciplinary measures, including transferring Wilson to a more secure prison.

Wilson was sentenced to life in prison for abducting and raping a 9-year-old girl in 1977.

Bobby Bowden, the inmate whose lawsuit led to the Supreme Court ruling, has to wait at least until next month for his sentencing to be reheard in Cumberland County. He was convicted in 1975 of two murders.

Judges don't have to schedule a hearing until after Oct. 29, and two Superior Court judges are now conducting lengthy trials and a third has to recuse himself because he represented one of Bowden's co-defendants in the original trial.

182 Comments

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  • ladyblue Oct 23, 5:39 p.m.

    HLN news had this story on for 15 minutes givig NC a fit the beginning of the week so I emailed them today at CNN to let them know what the governor is doing. I sent them the url to look this story up. Who knows they may be contacting some of you news reporters on this story since it made the news of how scandalous it was to let them all out as violent as they are.

  • nufsaid Oct 23, 4:54 p.m.

    "nclude the Judges names WRAL so we know WHO NOT TO VOTE FOR!
    affirmativediversity"

    In North Carolina the election of judges in non partisan. Interesting that the dems have representatives who stand outside of polling places with a list of recommended candidates. But I always ask for a copy. Helpful to know who to vote for as well as who not to vote for.

  • affirmativediversity Oct 23, 4:08 p.m.

    Allow me to apologize for my typing on the last couple of posts...it was REALLY BAD!

  • affirmativediversity Oct 23, 4:06 p.m.

    If the NC Supreme Court ruling stands for these prisoners then I would argue that ALL NC Judges must define how each prisoner will earn "good time credits" within their sentence OR in the absence of that condition of incarceration NO GOOD TIME CAN BE EARNED.

    Either way...ITS A CHANGE IN THE LAW as it stands on the books...therefore UNCONSTITUTIONAL because the NC Supreme Court does not have the authority to CHANGE LAW!

  • affirmativediversity Oct 23, 4:03 p.m.

    Professor why are you so PRO the prisoners on this issue? We don't always agree BUT usually you will consider the points made by others. This time you appear completely predisposed to ignore all but the prisoners point of view.

    Allow me to clarify:

    The prisoner filed a laws that their sentence had been unfairly changed from "Life, meaning 80 years" and "Life, without the possibility of parole". They based their argument on the facts of the Law at the time of their sentence...This the COURT CORRECTLY RULED in their favor...Life for the should mean 80 Years.
    BUT,
    The Court went one step further an "calculated good time" within the decision...THAT WENT TOO FAR. "Good Time" or how or when and by whom it is accrued WAS NOT and SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN MADE part of the decision. "Time for Good Behavior" is NOT PART OF ANY SENTENCE/JUDGEMENT it is a WHOLELY ADMINISTRATIVE PROCESS seperate and appart from the Judicial System.

  • Professor Oct 23, 3:43 p.m.

    The prisoner out-smarted NC and the courts agree the prisoners were right on the law. The governor will not be able to do nothing. She is failing as a governor and thought this would help. lol

  • Professor Oct 23, 3:38 p.m.

    The clock is ticking and soon certain prisoners will be released and there will be nothing this governor Perdue can do about it. lol

  • affirmativediversity Oct 23, 3:27 p.m.

    No it is sensible. You are not there so you would not know the behavior of the prisoners in question. per Professor

    __________________________

    I know they were CONVICTED of an henious CRIME in a COURT OF LAW by a JURY OF THEIR PEERS and SENTENCED TO LIFE!

    Again, as hard as this is for me to say...Perdue may be correct. "Points for Good Behavior" is an Administrative process overseen by the DOC...it is not part of a prisoners actual SENTENCE and is NOT GUARANTEED.

    The prisoners challenged their SENTENCE...the Court went too far when it incorporated an administrative process into their decision.

  • Professor Oct 23, 3:22 p.m.

    Perdue will not be able to defy the courts. She do not have that kind of authority to go over the courts. She will not be able to do that.

  • Professor Oct 23, 3:17 p.m.

    Wake up people. This goes on everyday, and has for years.

    You are right but many on board cannot see the forest for the trees. Maybe one day they will. lol lol

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