State News

N.C. lifers coping with decision to delay freedom

Posted October 23, 2009 1:57 p.m. EDT
Updated November 19, 2009 4:51 p.m. EST

— When prisoner Cecil Morrison heard that North Carolina's governor would block his release from a life sentence after nearly 32 years behind bars, he said he felt so sick he had to lie down on his bunk and ask God for help.

"When I heard the news yesterday, I got a little weak in the stomach, a little dizzy, a little tears," 49-year-old Morrison told The Associated Press in a phone interview from the Randolph Correctional Center in Asheboro. Just last week, prison officials told Morrison he would unexpectedly be set free.

"I was looking forward to the day of my release," he said.

The Department of Correction said it has been closely monitoring Morrison and 19 other inmates since Gov. Beverly Perdue said Thursday she would halt their releases.

"We're obviously concerned about the emotional ride these inmates have been on for the past week, as well as the victims," said department spokesman Keith Acree. "We're watching that group very carefully to make sure there's no rash behavior."

Acree said mental health staff and chaplains were available for the 20.

Perdue said Thursday that she was "appalled" by the North Carolina Supreme Court siding with the Court of Appeals decision that officials believed would lead to the release of convicted killer Bobby Bowden early from his life sentence.

Bowden argued that a state law from the 1970s defined a life sentence as 80 years. The good behavior credit system in the 1980s allowed some like Bowden to get day-for-a-day credits for good behavior.

Twenty inmates, including Morrison, qualified for release under this ruling. More were to follow in later months.

The governor argued that the General Assembly never intended to give the Department of Correction that kind of authority.

"Until these new legal issues have been resolved by the courts, Mr. Bowden and the other violent offenders will not be released," Perdue said.

Morrison still believes he'll be a free man soon, even though Acree said the releases are on hold indefinitely.

"I'm still holding on to my faith and I believe that right now this is just a little red herring," Morrison said, adding he has no animosity toward the governor and he knows she's just doing what outraged victims and the general public demand.

Morrison was convicted of second-degree rape in 1977 for abducting a girl at knifepoint, leading her into a wooded area, sexually assaulting and robbing her.

"At that point, I didn't really feel for anyone but myself," Morrison said. "I'm not who I was in 1976 when I was locked up. I'm not that 17-year-old child any more."

Morrison says he's been changed by the grace of God, but the Department of Correction may have had a hand in it as well. Morrison credits prison with transforming him from an illiterate teenager into a man with a GED who's a few credits shy of a degree in social work.

James Lewis, the assistant superintendent at Davidson Correctional Center, said facility inmate Manley Porter was disheartened by the state's announcement, as well.

"He was disappointed as any of us would be," Lewis said. "Now he's just waiting to see what happens. He knows that things can go up and down."

Porter, 61, said in an interview earlier this week that he was excited to return to the outside world, planning on eating his first meal at International House of Pancakes and continuing his involvement at a local church where he plays piano on day trips outside of prison with a mentor.

Regardless of the state high court ruling on sentence length, Porter is scheduled to be paroled in June of next year. Porter was convicted of raping a woman during an 1976 robbery.

Officials say most of the other inmates will likely join Porter soon.

"I think what will ultimately happen is that each of these people will spend several years more but not life," said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake. Stam, who sent a memo to the state Attorney General arguing against the ruling, said the inmates would probably be granted some of their good behavior credits, but not all.

Victims of the convicted murderers and rapists realize their fight isn't over. Department of Correction employees who notified victims that the inmates would not be released Thursday said they were very pleased but also realized "this isn't a permanent decision," said Acree.

Morrison said that although he isn't "the monster they described in the newspapers" he feels sympathy for his victim, who's riding the same roller coaster.

"I know she's going through pure hell right now too," Morrison said.