My latest court story for Carolina Journal:

RALEIGH — Over the years, North Carolina law has defined “life sentences” in a variety of ways, some of which have treated those convicted of capital crimes differently depending on when they were sentenced.

The state Supreme Court recently was asked again to decide how long “life sentences” handed down in the mid-1970s actually must run.

In a December ruling, the high court held that convicted murderer Bobby Bowden should remain in prison, overturning two lower court decisions finding that various credits applied to his case should have made him eligible for release five years ago.

Bowden was convicted in 1975 of two counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to death. The next year, the N.C. Supreme Court ordered that Bowden instead serve a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. State law at the time defined a life sentence as 80 years.

State prisoners accrue various sorts of credits that ordinarily can be applied to their sentences, moving their release date forward. That’s especially true under the sentencing scheme that applied to Bowden.

Several inmates with life sentences for crimes committed between April 8, 1974, and June 30, 1978 — when the law redefined life sentences to mean the duration of the inmate’s life — have challenged how those credits were applied, contending that they should count toward establishing an earlier unconditional release date.

The issue made it to the N.C. Supreme Court in a case called Jones v. Keller in which the high court held that the Department of Correction had been right in not applying credits and setting an earlier release date.

Bowden began legal proceedings in 2005 seeking his unconditional release from prison. In 2012 — two years after Jones was decided — Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks determined that Bowden’s good time, gain time, and merit time credits should be applied toward his release date, calculated by Weeks as Oct. 13, 2009.

Bowden’s release was put on hold pending appeals. In 2013, the Court of Appeals upheld Weeks’ ruling. The state then asked the state Supreme Court to review the decision.

Is Bowden’s case different?

For Bowden to prevail, his situation must be different than that of Jones. A majority of the justices held that it was not.

“In all significant ways, the issues presented by this case are indistinguishable from those resolved by our decision in Jones. In Jones the trial court ruled that Alford Jones, a Bowden-class defendant who was convicted of first-degree murder and whose death sentence was subsequently reduced to life imprisonment, was entitled to receive credits for all purposes and to have those credits applied towards his unconditional release,” wrote Justice Paul Newby for the Supreme Court.

“Jones also argued that after Bowden II, the [Department of Correction] applied his credits in calculating an unconditional release date of which he was informed. This Court rejected that reasoning and concluded that the DOC possessed ‘statutorily and constitutionally permissible authority’ to apply Jones’s credits ‘for limited purposes that did not include calculating an unconditional release date.’”

Newby went on to add that Bowden’s credits could be applied to move up the date he was eligible for parole or for other benefits while incarcerated, but that they could not be used to set an early release date.

“Because defendant’s status is indistinguishable from that of the defendant in Jones, he must be treated equally under the law. The DOC has never applied these credits towards the calculation of an unconditional release date for a Bowden-class inmate. Therefore, we hold that [Bowden], like Jones, remains lawfully incarcerated and is not entitled to release. The decision of the Court of Appeals affirming the trial court’s order to the contrary is reversed,” Newby wrote.

Justices Robin Hudson and Cheri Beasley dissented from the majority holding.

“The majority holds that Bobby Bowden must remain incarcerated, despite the unchallenged fact that he has accumulated good time, gain time, and merit time credits which, if applied, would have entitled him to release in October 2009. Here I conclude that, unlike in Jones v. Keller, the North Carolina Department of Correction actually applied the prison credits to defendant Bowden’s record, and it may not now take those credits away without violating his constitutional rights,” wrote Hudson.

To Hudson, the key item that distinguishes this case from Jones is that a judge specifically had found that the state had applied the various credits to Bowden’s account for purposes of determining his release date.

“Here, however, the trial court found as fact that credits had been applied for this purpose — a factual finding of paramount importance which the majority has largely ignored. Because we are bound on appeal by that finding, just as we are bound by the Supreme Court’s interpretations of federal constitutional law, I conclude that defendant Bowden was entitled to release in October 2009 and that his continued detention violates the United States Constitution.”

The case is State v. Bowden, (514PA08-3).