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October 16, 2009

"State forced to free 20 violent criminals"

The title of this post is the headline of this very interesting local article from North Carolina.  Here are some of the notable particulars:

Twenty murderers, rapists and robbers sentenced to life in North Carolina prisons in the 1970s will be released at the end of October as a result of recent court rulings.

Most of the inmates are in their 50s and 60s, but many of them were convicted years ago of gruesome crimes that might have kept them locked up longer today. One of them successfully petitioned the courts to recognize that old laws defined a life sentence as 80 years, and that another law cut those sentences in half.

Ten of those scheduled to be released were sex offenders, including men who raped young girls. Seven have spent time on death row. The one woman in the group was convicted of murdering a state trooper while fleeing a bank robbery.

State officials said Thursday they have no choice but to release them. "I am appalled that the state of North Carolina is being forced to release prisoners who have committed the most heinous crimes, without any review of their cases," said Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Thomas Bennett, executive director of the N.C. Victim Assistance Network, worries about the victims' safety and stability. "This will open new wounds and retraumatize crime victims," Bennett said. "These are bad actors. These are not people we want on the streets."

Perdue's office said she was determined to find a way to keep the inmates in prison, but a spokesman for the state's attorney general said it is unlikely she will prevail. "Our lawyers have argued just about everything they can think of to keep this from happening," said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper. "The Supreme Court has the final say."

The inmates are scheduled to be released Oct. 29, just 20 days after the N.C. Supreme Court declined to overturn a state Court of Appeals decision that recalculated life sentences applied to crimes committed during the 1970s....

Since 1994, when North Carolina eliminated parole, a life sentence in North Carolina has meant the convict will die behind bars. But only first-degree murder can carry a life sentence, and now, the shortest sentence someone convicted now of first-degree forcible rape can serve is 12 years....

State correction officials have been working furiously to prepare the 20 inmates for their release and alert the victims and their families. Staff spent this week urging relatives of these inmates to take them in on Oct. 29. They have also been trying to track down victims, many of whom have long since lost touch with the court system. "In some cases, there's shock when we call," said Keith Acree, a DOC spokesman. "In other cases, there's uncertainty. In a lot of cases, the best we can do is leave a message on a machine."

In the meantime, Acree said, some local prosecutors and police are rifling through old court files, looking for crimes with which they never bothered to charge these defendants. Other officials are running the inmates' names in a national crime database to see if they are wanted on crimes outside North Carolina. "They are looking for any sort of issue that will allow these people to stay locked up," Acree said.

October 16, 2009 at 09:20 AM | Permalink


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This is the wording:

"A sentence of life imprisonment shall be considered as a sentence of imprisonment for a term of 80 years in the state's prison."

Ignore the "cut by half" part. Suppose Florida ditches LWOP for juvies and just sentences them to 80 years. What then?

Posted by: . | Oct 16, 2009 10:11:48 AM

Nothing in the story about these people's records in prison, whether there is reason to think they are actually dangerous now in their late 50s or 60s, etc. Just parroting the state officials' politically-driven scare-mongering.

I don't see what is exceptionally controversial here. The legislature passed laws that limited the sentence for these people to 40 years---hardly an insignificant amount of time; in fact, most of their adult lives. If anything, the controversy should be that the state DOC failed to enforce the law, so that these prisoners had to file a lawsuit in order to establish that they had finished or were about to finish serving their lawful sentences. In America, we don't just lock up bad people and throw away the key. We sentence them pursuant to valid law. If valid law said 40 years, that's what it said.

I'm also not exactly inspired to see local prosecutors and police spending the public's time digging through old case files trying to find crimes to pin on these people (which will undoubtedly be barred by SOL absent the unlikely event of a previously unprosecuted murder that they could actually prove 30 years later)... instead of protecting the public against current crimes happening now.

Posted by: nc atty | Oct 16, 2009 11:08:15 AM

"Nothing in the story about these people's records in prison, whether there is reason to think they are actually dangerous now in their late 50s or 60s, etc. Just parroting the state officials' politically-driven scare-mongering."

ok, nc atty, they can all live next door to you.

"I don't see what is exceptionally controversial here."

Most people don't like seeing violent criminals released. I do agree that, if news reports are correct, that strictly as a matter of legal analysis, this doesn't look to be controversial. But that's not all that's going on here--it is obtuse to suggest otherwise. I will note, of course, that it's interesting to see someone call for the law to be read strictly. I hope that when some doofus tries to argue that the death penalty is per se unconstitutional, you will be pointing out how that flies in the face of the language of the constitution.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 16, 2009 12:06:45 PM

Bravo, nc atty! Notice no one in the article is particularly impressed with the Constitution and the rule of law. Notice who it quotes and who it leaves out and what it leaves vague. Like this: ""In some cases, there's shock when we call," said Keith Acree, a DOC spokesman. "In other cases, there's uncertainty."

Uncertainty, like they asked, "Are you telling me I should fear for my life?"

The news is creative writing, a narrative co-authored by the government and its agents.

Federalist: "But that's not all that's going on here--"

Exactly. What is going on here is the sky is falling, the sky is falling. Don't you hope one of them is a Willie Horton? Wouldn't that give you great pleasure?

I don't. Indeed, "Inmates such as Bowden chiseled away at their 40-year sentences even further with "merit time," months and years knocked off their sentences for good behavior, for taking on jobs while in prison and for completing degree programs. All the inmates to be turned loose on Oct. 29 earned some sort of merit credit."

So there is hope. If they committed another serious crime or murder while in prison, there would also be that sentence. The article carefully avoids that question. The odds are that none of them are a Willie Horton, but there is also the chance that one of them could be, and if so that will will equate to all of them. Then federalist will be happy again.

Posted by: George | Oct 16, 2009 2:36:45 PM

Also notice that the propaganda starts with the title:

"State forced to free 20 violent criminals"

As if the state is a distinct entity separate from the law, a victim. Not only a victim, but a victim of violence "forced" to do something against its will. The law isn't doing this violence to the state. No, it's those damn activists judges at it again!

It's really fun to read between the lines of the news.

Posted by: George | Oct 16, 2009 2:48:06 PM

One imagines that the state of North Carolina releases thousands of felons, probably half of whom committed violent crimes, every year. Another twenty geezers who have served 40 years each added to the mix, with reasonably good prison records that have allowed them to earn good time and avoid committing new offenses in prison.

It is hard to imagine that any of them face charges for offenses for which the statute of limitations hasn't run. Just about every offense but murder has a statute of limitations well under 40 years, and presence in a secure penitentary is usually a pretty good alibi for offenses committed while the statute of limitations is still open. Cold case murders are routinely pursued and monitored, even when suspects are incarcerated and serving life sentences.

Even very bitter people usually see grudges towards victims and those who put them away fade in 40 years. A reasonable guess that a fair share of the victims were either murder victims or have since died of unrelated causes.

People in their 50s and 60s are simply not as prone to commit violent crimes as people in their 20s and 30s. The ones on the younger side may have less age related decline in aggression, but also had less of a criminal history before being incarcerated, on average.

Since those released won't be subject to parole conditions (query if the sex offender registration requirements apply to the ten sex offenders), they are also free to live NC while getting on with their lives, and it may make a lot of less to move someplace where they are less notorious.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Oct 16, 2009 4:39:45 PM


Good point about the headline. Considering that violent criminals complete their lawful sentences and are released from prison with great frequency, couldn't the paper run essentially the same headline EVERY DAY?

How about "State to fulfill 28-year-old promise by releasing violent criminals"

Posted by: nc atty | Oct 16, 2009 4:50:00 PM

There is no statute of limitations on felonies in North Carolina.

I don't believe the 1981 law required DOC to cut pre-1981 sentences in half. The 1981 law (the "Fair Sentencing Act") included a credit rule (G.S. 15A-1340.7) that was explicitly made applicable only to offenses committed on or after July 1, 1981. DOC made a similar rule applicable to pre-1981 sentences by its own administrative regulation in 1983.

Posted by: Jamie Markham | Oct 16, 2009 5:16:12 PM

I find it ironic that my state of North Carolina is releasing these people back into society and yet not one single pardon has been issued by a NC Governor that didn't involve dna making them innocent. So we can let a murderer or rapist get back to their lives but someone who has committed a victimless crime in NC and has applied for a pardon continues to be denied. Way to go Gov Bev Easley.... I mean Gov Bev Perdue!

North Carolina Resident

Posted by: Anon | Oct 16, 2009 5:35:17 PM

nc atty, good one. Made me laugh. I really wish more would speak up like you did here on the merits. Maybe an Onion-like defense/due process/Constitution online newspaper would be a hit. The monopoly without answer sure is frustrating. Healthy debate is one thing, and reasonable minds can disagree, but there is hardly any debate at all in news articles like this one. Even FoxNews is more fair and balanced.

Posted by: George | Oct 16, 2009 5:36:16 PM

"They are looking for any sort of issue that will allow these people to stay locked up," Acree said. I believe, these people need to be in protective custody with 24 hour surveillance before some violation will be crafted to keep these people locked up. As you can see already, this system in government can get very creative !

Posted by: Land of the free | Oct 19, 2009 5:28:14 AM

Why are we SO concerned about the criminals & have so little regard for the average, honest, hard-working citizens???
Those they are attempting to let out of jail - when their sentences were to be "life"-is cause for alarm!! We MUST find a way to keep them & others like them in jail-or use capital punishment where there is just cause.

Posted by: annie | Oct 22, 2009 4:45:32 PM

Do not release violent criminals back into society, in my family case. Donnie Burl Lemons murdered three young girls my sister included at Myrtle beach only served 18 years. Was actually transferred to his home town of Little Rock Arkansas. After release did this again served 12 years released commited the crime again and released last victim was a 13 year old girl lucky if you can call it that she was kidnapped raped over several days she was able to get away. Her life will never be the same. My sister only 17 will never have a life and our family continues to suffer heartbreak. He used his only weapon his big blade knife to assist in his crimes and murder weapon. Come now do we want these violent criminals back on our streets to continue rapeing and murdering our children, sisters, and wifes and it could be you next time. I do not want murders back on the street and certainly not sex offenders. It is wrong so wrong to release them. We have said no so many times to capital punishment but release them no no no.
C Sigmon

Posted by: csigmon | Oct 26, 2009 9:23:57 AM

Look people do make mistake.God forgive what about you?

Posted by: julie | Oct 28, 2009 10:38:02 PM

release everyone of them! if the "law" wants to be so darn absolute about enforcment then why not be as equally ABSOLUTE as to adhering TO IT!

Posted by: REALTRUTH | Nov 23, 2009 6:57:59 PM

Release everyone of them! If the "law" wants to be so darn absolute about enforcment, then lets be as equally as ABSOLUTE as to adhering TO IT!......and JUSTICE for ALL.

Posted by: REALTRUTH | Nov 23, 2009 7:06:06 PM

There old now i don't think there is much to worry about when you are released at 60!

Posted by: marie | Apr 24, 2016 2:54:13 PM

My previous comment on Donnie Burl Lemons, Little Rock, Arkansas did poass away in 2014. My thoughts to that is sadness for his family. But the crimes of killing women in numbers is still unthinkable. God says forgive and I hope he found God. It still leaves me with sadness of losing my sister as the other family members of the other girls as well. I still believe all that take the life of others in such a violent way should not ever be released. One time maybe but never in repeated crimes. Age does not matter but life is life not a period of time until you reach 60. Some of his crimes were in Myrtle Beach South Carolina in the early 1970's not North Carolina.

Posted by: carolyn Sigmon | Mar 5, 2019 4:22:44 PM

I was stationed at Myrtle Beach Air Force base and Donnie Lemons was my trainer. I was there when they arrested him. He also killed in Alamogordo NM. This man threaten to kill me and my wife. I never knew he was released from prison until 2009. Articles written about him in True detective had quoted me in that storyline. Myrtle Beach never wanted this news out due to losing tourism. Carol Sigmon I’m sorry for your loss. Donnie killed on July 3rd 1972 and I thought that was his last victim.

Posted by: Rick Elderbroom | May 27, 2020 1:03:36 PM

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