RALEIGH, N.C. -- How long should a sentence of life in prison last?

The North Carolina Supreme Court is taking up that question when it comes to a group if inmates sentenced in the mid-1970s. The group includes a Concord, N.C., man who still proclaims his innocence.

Ronnie Wallace Long has spent more than 32 years in prison for a rape he says he did not commit. In an interview with the NewsChannel 36 I-Team more than two years ago, Long described how he'd seen many inmates come and go with lesser sentences, in his words, "....come from death row -- commuted to life -- in the street. And I ain't touched nobody,harmed nobody."

Long is one of about 100 North Carolina inmates who have served more than three decades behind bars under life sentences handed down between 1974 and 1978. The question of what "life" meant under that law is now before the highest court in the state.

Lawyers for one of the inmates are asking the state Supreme Court to treat a life sentence as 80 years, making the inmates eligible for release in less than half that time.

DOC spokesman Keith Acree expressed concern about the release of the inmates without parole saying, "Should the law be interpreted differently and they're suddenly released from prison with no supervision whatsoever? It's a big concern to us and should probably be a concern to the communities where these people go."

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The test case involves Bobby E. Bowden, a 60-year-old man convicted of shooting two men to death in a 7-Eleven convenience store near Fayetteville, N.C., in August 1975. Bowden's lawyer told the high court that the legislature had the right to change prison terms for the same crime but that the 70s law means Bowden's active prison sentence should be reduced.

Less than a year ago a judge refused to grant Ronnie Long a new trial but did order the Department of Correction to reduce his sentence. The DOC asked for and won a stay of that order pending the Supreme Court's decision in the Bowden case.

"Legislative bodies tinker with and experiment with punishments from time to time," argued Jane Allen of the Office of the Appellate Defender.

The group of inmates who could be freed earlier includes some inmates once sentenced to death but whose sentences were commuted to life sentences after the US Supreme Court in 1976 overturned North Carolina's automatic death sentence for certain crimes like rape and murder.

Bill Hart of the state Attorney General's Office argued that the legislature intended a harsh punishment when it substituted life for those inmates who had been on death row.

"All of those convicted murderers were going to have their death sentences vacated and life sentences were going to be imposed," Hart told the court.

In the case of Ronnie Wallace Long, a lower court ordered the Department of Correction to reduce his sentence. But the DOC asked for and won a stay of that order until the Supreme Court decides the Bowden case.

That could take months. And if the court sides with the inmates, then it's up to the DOC to calculate how many of the inmates have enough "sentence credits" such as time credited for good behavior to be allowed to go free.

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