Cover Story: NC Department of Correction - no early release

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - North Carolina trying to slam the door on inmates in state prisons serving life sentences and were apparently scheduled to go free.  It's the case of 130 robbers, rapists and killers.  Now, they're not getting out any time soon.

The Department of Corrections saying the inmates won't be released until 20-54.  And by then, these men would be in their hundreds, or dead.

This announcement would seem like a big relief to families who've been directly impacted by these criminals.  But the case is not closed.

A judge in the county where the case originated still will decide whether the inmates have served their time or whether the NC Department of Correction is correct keeping them behind bars.

"You're letting a guy out that's done something like this?! Who's to say he won't strike again?"

That's the feeling nearly everyone's expressed to the state immediately releasing 27 of the worst of the worst.. and agreeing to release 103 more.

The case initiated by convicted felon Bobby Bowden who murdered a Cumberland county woman in 1975.

His attorneys successfully argued that credits gained from 40 years in prison should be applied to his life sentence.. letting him get out immediately.

"He murdered my wife," says Richard Ehrhart.  "He's 60 years old.. been in jail 40 years. And all of a sudden they open the gates and he walks out?"

The decision was backed up by the North Carolina Supreme Court and initially interpreted by the Department of Correction to mean an immediate release.  Now DOC says that was a wrong interpretation of the court decision..

In 50 years of corrections the DOC argues so-called lifers have earned credits but the credits were never awarded to lifers for the purpose of early release.

The department keeps track of the credits should an inmate's sentence be commuted to something less than life.

To comply with the court ruling on Thursday the Department of Correction changed the way it calls a life sentence for those inmates convicted in 1970's - the inmates in question.  Their 80-year sentence will end in 2054.

Gov. Perdue was in Charlotte Thursday for announcement at Central Piedmont Community College.  It was her corrections department which falsely interpreted the court decision.  She says they're now righting a wrong.

Says the governor, "Quite simply somebody interpreted the law the way the law wasn't intended to be interpreted and the Department has the history. I feel good. I think we'll keep the prisoners in jail.. I hope."

She hopes because it's now up to a judge in Fayetteville to determine whether it agrees with the Department of Correction's reasoning that inmates with life sentences like Bobby Bowden who earned credits are not allowed to apply those credits toward early release.

Another inmate Wilbur Folston convicted in Cleveland County in Shelby in the 1970s is using the same arguments Bobby Bowden used.. the state plans a fierce attack to stop Folston.