RALEIGH, North Carolina — A convicted killer sentenced when life terms in a North Carolina prison were defined as 80 years still shouldn't be released after receiving so many good-conduct credits that correction officials once set a release date for him, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.
A majority of justices on the court reversed lower court rulings that had determined 65-year-old Bobby E. Bowden of Fayetteville should be let out of prison, where he's been serving concurrent sentences for two 1975 slayings during a convenience store robbery.
Bowden accrued credits, and prison officials ultimately set an October 2009 release date for him. Following an outcry from the public and then-Gov. Beverly Perdue that Bowden and two dozen other convicted killers and rapists in similar situations with credit would soon be set free, the state reversed release plans.
In a 2010 ruling involving two other convicted killers from the '70s, the state Supreme Court decided a life sentence meant the life of the prisoner and they should continue serving their sentences.
But later a trial judge and the Court of Appeals said Bowden's situation was different because what was then the Department of Correction had actually applied the credits to Bowden and told him when he would be released. Revoking Bowden's credits denied him due-process rights, a three-member panel ruled last year. His release was put on hold pending review.
But Associate Justice Paul Newby, writing for the four-member majority, said Bowden's case was no different than other inmates in the same category of old sentencing laws. The state has the responsibility to ensure the release of only those prisoners "who are prepared to return safely to society," Newby said.
Bowden "has no state-created right to his unconditional release based on an agency's good faith interpretation of, and actions taken to comply with, a ruling that is later found to be contrary to law," Newby wrote in overturning the Court of Appeals decision that affirmed the trial judge's decision.
The state Attorney General's Office, which represented the state in the case, had no comment on the decision, a spokeswoman said Friday. Bowden's appellate attorney didn't immediately return a telephone call to her office Friday afternoon seeking comment.
In the dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Robin Hudson wrote that Bowden has been unconstitutionally imprisoned since 2009.
"The state is under no obligation to create or to award credits that reduce a prisoner's sentence for a crime for which he was lawfully convicted," Hudson wrote. "But once it does so, it cannot then arbitrarily and with no process take those credits back." Associate Justice Cheri Beasley sided with Hudson.
Bowden is imprisoned at the Caledonia Correctional Institution prison farm in Tillery, according to Department of Public Safety records.