Cover Story: NC prison inmates release

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Killers, rapists, and robbers in North Carolina prisons, awaiting release.  At first, it was 20 inmates. Seven more just added.  Now, we're being told it could be 120 prisoners freed when this whole thing is said and done.

What you probably don't know is North Carolina has been releasing prisoners with life sentences back into the community for the last 20 years.

Almost 150.. some of them murderers and rapists.  The major difference is they were released on parole.. under supervision.  That won't happen if these latest cases go through.

It's the case of Bobby Bowden that's drawn all the attention.  The convicted killer sentenced in 1975 to a life sentence - never was a life sentence in the eyes of North Carolina law.

Under the law and prison policy at the time.. "life" could mean as little as 40 years.

Inmates could earn early-release credits on top of that.. could see their "life" sentence reduced even further.

Which is what Bowden says happened to him and why the North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed with him.

The led the Department of Correction to release the list of 26 others who fall into the same category as Bowden.

An idea that outrages Gov. Perdue and many others.

Even though before the laws were changed in the 90s.. North Carolina has been releasing "lifers" for many years.

James Markham, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill says there might not be much the governor can do to stop it.

He says, "For what's already been in place all these years, they wouldn't be able to go back in time and change. So in that sense, what's done is done."

What makes this case different.. when other prisoners sentenced to life who've seen their prison time shortened.. their cases have gone before the North Carolina Parole Commission..

That won't happen in the case of Bowden and the others.. because of the Court of Appeals ruling.

Won't be subject to supervision.. which is why Gov. Perdue is asking the court to look at prison policy changes made by Department of Corrections chief James Woodward more than 25 years ago that gave time off credit to all life prisoners.

Those who follow politics closely say she's facing an uphill battle.

Says Jack Betts, The Charlotte Observer's associate editor in Raleigh, "I think it's clear that neither the North Carolina Court of Appeals nor the North Carolina Supreme Court has much stomach for going back and saying this sentence is actually longer than what the state has been telling you all this time."

Does the governor have the authority to overrule state courts? Clearly not.. this could be a battle that winds up in the hands of a federal court.

Inmates were scheduled to be released Thursday.. won't.. that's on indefinited hold right now.