Counsel Amended January 7, 2015.
N.C. Court of Appeals. No. 12-1072. Wanda G. Bryant, Judge.
Joseph FinarelliMr., Primary Attorney, Special Deputy Attorney General, N.C. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Raleigh, NC, for Plaintiff-Appellant - State of NC.
Katherine Jane AllenMs., Primary Attorney, Assistant Appellate Defender, N.C. APPELLATE DEFENDERS OFFICE, Durham, NC, for Defendant-Appellee - Bowden, Bobby E.
NEWBY, Justice. Justice HUNTER did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case. Justice HUDSON dissenting. Justice BEASLEY joins in this dissenting opinion.
On writ of certiorari pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-32(b) of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C.App. ___, 747 S.E.2d 617 (2013), affirming an order entered on 8 May 2012 by Judge Gregory A. Weeks in Superior Court, Cumberland County. Heard in the Supreme Court on 15 April 2014.
In this case we determine whether the various credits defendant Bobby E. Bowden has accumulated during his incarceration must be applied to reduce his sentence of life imprisonment, thereby entitling him to immediate and unconditional release. Our previous holdings regarding the particular class of inmates that includes defendant [367 N.C. 681] mandate the conclusion that defendant remains lawfully incarcerated. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.
On 20 December 1975, defendant was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of armed robbery in Superior Court, Cumberland County, and was later sentenced to death. On direct appeal in 1976, this Court vacated defendant's death sentence and remanded the case with directives to impose life sentences for the two counts of first-degree murder, in accord with Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 96 S.Ct. 2978, 49 L.Ed.2d 944 (1976). State v. Bowden, 290 N.C. 702, 717, 228 S.E.2d 414, 424 (1976) (" Bowden I " ). Upon remand of this case to the trial court, defendant received two life sentences to run concurrently.
Notably, defendant is one of a limited group of prisoners, referred to herein as the Bowden -class inmates, who committed offenses between 8 April 1974 and 30 June 1978 and received death sentences that were later reduced to life imprisonment. The version of section 14-2 of the North Carolina General Statutes in effect during that time period stated that " [a] sentence of life imprisonment shall be considered as a sentence of imprisonment for a term of 80 years in the State's prison." N.C.G.S. § 14-2 (Supp. 1974). Defendant has accrued various credits while incarcerated, including good time, gain time, and merit time. For Bowden -class inmates serving a life sentence, the Department of Correction (" DOC" ) has applied these credits towards privileges like obtaining a lower custody grade or earlier parole eligibility, but not towards the calculation of an unconditional release date. Lovette v. N.C. Dep't of Corr., 366 N.C. 471, 737 S.E.2d 737 (per curiam), cert. denied, __ U.S. __, 134 S.Ct. 394, 187 L.Ed.2d 168 (2013); Jones v. Keller, 364 N.C. 249, 254, 698 S.E.2d 49, 54 (2010), cert. denied, __ U.S. __, 131 S.Ct. 2150, 179 L.Ed.2d 935 (2011). The DOC applied some of defendant's credits towards earlier parole eligibility. The Parole Commission has periodically reviewed defendant's parole eligibility according to law since 1987 and denied defendant parole after each review. In December 2005 defendant filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus ad subjiciendum, claiming he was entitled to immediate release from prison because, after applying all his various credits, he had completed his eighty-year life sentence. The trial court denied defendant's petition by an order dated 25 January 2006.
[367 N.C. 682] Defendant petitioned the Court of Appeals for review. Treating defendant's petition for writ of certiorari as a motion for appropriate relief, the Court of Appeals vacated the 25
January 2006 order and remanded the matter for an evidentiary hearing under N.C.G.S. § 15A-1420. Following that hearing, the trial court entered an order on 27 August 2007 once again denying defendant's claim for relief.
Defendant appealed the denial of his motion for appropriate relief. The Court of Appeals held that N.C.G.S. § 14-2 (1974) regards defendant's life sentence as an eighty-year sentence " for all purposes" " without any limitation or restriction." State v. Bowden, 193 N.C.App. 597, 600-01, 668 S.E.2d 107, 109-10 (2008) (" Bowden II " ), disc. rev. improvidently allowed per curiam, 363 N.C. 621, 683 S.E.2d 208 (2009). The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's order and remanded " for a hearing to determine how many sentence reduction credits defendant is eligible to receive and how those credits are to be applied." Id. at 601, 668 S.E.2d at 110.
In response to this decision, the DOC calculated projected release dates for Bowden and all other affected inmates and informed those inmates accordingly. Nonetheless, in subsequent litigation involving other Bowden -class inmates, the DOC maintained and successfully defended its position that credits had not been and should not be applied towards the unconditional release of Bowden -class inmates. Lovette, 366 N.C. at 472, 737 S.E.2d at 737; Jones, 364 N.C. at 260, 698 S.E.2d at 58; accord Brown v. N.C. Dep't of Corr., 364 N.C. 319, 320, 697 S.E.2d 327 (2010) (per curiam).
In this case, upon remand from the Court of Appeals, the trial court held a hearing and entered an order on 8 May 2012, concluding that defendant had a liberty interest in good time, gain time, and merit time credits that he earned between 1975 and October 2009. The trial court ruled that all of defendant's credits should be applied to his sentence for all purposes, including calculating an unconditional release date. Further, the trial court concluded that the DOC's refusal to apply defendant's credits in this way violated his rights under both the Due Process Clause and the Ex Post Facto Clause of the United States Constitution. Upon applying all of defendant's credits to his eighty-year life sentence, the trial court determined that defendant had served his entire sentence, that his unconditional release date was 13 October 2009, and that he should have been released on 29 October 2009. The trial court ordered the DOC to release defendant unconditionally by 11 May 2012, but stayed its order the following day pending final appellate review.
[367 N.C. 683] On appeal the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court. State v. Bowden, __ N.C.App. __, __, 747 S.E.2d 617, 630 (2013). The Court of Appeals noted, inter alia, that the DOC applied credits towards the calculation of defendant's unconditional release date following its decision in Bowden II in 2008 and this Court's silence on the merits of that case in 2009. Id. at __, 747 S.E.2d at 619. To support its determination, the Court of Appeals pointed to the presence of the word " applied" in defendant's computerized credit records and informal internal discussions among DOC employees following Bowden II. Id. at __, 747 S.E.2d at 621-22. The trial court and the Court of Appeals contended this evidence rendered our previous decision in Jones, regarding an otherwise indistinguishable defendant, inapplicable. Id. at __, 747 S.E.2d at 621.
The State sought review in this Court via a petition for writ of certiorari, which we allowed to decide whether our decision in Jones controls the outcome of this case. State v. Bowden, 367 N.C. 267, 267, 749 S.E.2d 847, 848 (2013). Defendant argues, as did the defendant in Jones, that when his various credits are applied to his statutorily defined eighty-year life sentence, he is entitled to immediate and unconditional release. See Jones, 364 N.C. at 252, 698 S.E.2d at 52-53. Again like the defendant in Jones, defendant contends the DOC's refusal to apply his credits in this way infringes on his due process protected liberty interests and subjects him to an unconstitutional ex post facto law. Id. at 256, 698 S.E.2d at 55.
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 ...