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Victims, families outraged by inmates’ release

The decision to release 20 violent criminals next week in North Carolina because of a quirk in the law is drawing criticism from victims and their families.
Life Sentences Victims
Carolyn Ashburn holds a photo of her father, John Hall, at her home in Wadeville, N.C. Hall was murdered by James C. Johnson, who is among 20 prisoners serving life sentences who will be released in about a week because of a quirk in North Carolina law. Gerry Broome / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The man who shot Pam Hurley's mother to death during a convenience store robbery in 1975 was supposed to spend the rest of his life in prison. Instead, because of a quirk in North Carolina law, he and 19 other violent criminals will be released next week, most without supervision from even a parole officer.

"It's a nightmare; an absolute nightmare," Hurley said Tuesday. "These people are going to be released. They'll be free to move and go wherever they want to go. And that's a scary thing."

Her mother's killer, Bobby Bowden, set in motion the court case that will free some felons sentenced to life terms in the 1970s unless officials can find a way to keep them locked up.

Bowden argued a state law from that decade defined a life sentence as 80 years. It was changed a few years later, but Bowden said it was in effect when he was sentenced, meaning that with good behavior credits and other rule changes, he had served his time.

More could be released
The felons have been denied parole repeatedly over the years. The state Correction Department estimates about 100 more prisoners could be released in the coming months.

State Supreme Court justices all but begged prosecutors during a hearing last month to give them any reason to say no, but they could not. Lawmakers say there's nothing they can do, though federal prosecutors are looking into the cases to determine if there is any way to keep the prisoners in custody.

Family members and victims are bracing themselves for the release. Some are too scared to talk. For others, shock has given way to anger, then sadness, as they relive details of the days their fathers or mothers were killed or raped.

Hurley understands victims are scared — she's worried about identifying herself. But the issue is too important to keep quiet, she said.

"This animal took the lives of two innocent people and should not be released," she said. "We thought when he was sentenced he would spend the rest of his natural life in prison. But he's out after 33 years, and Mom's dead."

Hurley, now 51, was 17 when her mother, Norma Jean Ehrhart, went to a convenience store in Fayetteville to buy milk and bread. Instead, she walked in on a robbery; the clerk was already dead and Ehrhart was shot. She died en route to the hospital.

‘We're in disbelief’
Hurley's sister, Michelle Knieriem, was a 15-year-old returning from the beach that morning. When she arrived at the apartment, her sister met her with the news.

"It was unbelievable," said Knieriem, 49.

The killing, she said, tore apart her family. Bowden's pending release is bringing the four siblings back together.

"I can't believe this is happening," she said. "We've been told by corrections that it's a done deal, that they're going to release him. We're in disbelief that they're going to let this guy go."

The inmates about to be released are worried too, said state appellate defender Staples Hughes, who worked on Bowden's appeal. He said Bowden and his family don't want to talk to reporters.

‘Not looking to antagonize anyone’
"They understand that there's anger, and they're not looking to antagonize anyone," he said. The victims and survivors "are all people who living in the aftermath of a violent crime and they have every right to be angry. It's like opening an old wound for them. ... I cannot personally measure the depth of their anger and hurt and pain because I've not been there."

That's scant comfort for Carolyn Ashburn, who promised her mother she would make sure James C. Johnson stayed behind bars. So each January since 1986 — the year her mother died and Johnson became eligible for parole — she has driven about 100 miles each way to testify that authorities should not release the man who shot and killed her father as her mother and a pawn shop customer watched.

"They might as well open the door and let them all out," she said. "What's the matter with North Carolina?"

‘I feel closer to him here’
Ashburn, now 73, still lives in the same house in Wadeville where 72-year-old John Farley Hall was shot on Feb. 19, 1975. She stayed because her father would not have wanted anyone to run her out of the family home.

"We just ain't that kind of people," she said. "As a matter of fact, I feel closer to him here."

Not everyone shares her fearlessness.

A Kinston woman raped by Steven C. Wilson when she was 9 says she is worried about his pending release. Wilson, convicted in 1978 of kidnapping and first-degree rape, lured her into his car by telling her that her sister wanted to talk to her.

"He locked the doors and said, if you scream, I'm going to kill you," the woman recalled. He was caught because, even through her tears and fear, she remembered his license plate number.

Her family never discussed the rape, and she never received counseling. Still, the woman, who turned 44 on Tuesday, will graduate from college in December. She's married, though separated, and has a 17-year-old daughter. The Associated Press is not naming her because she is a victim of sexual assault.

She said she has thought about the rape daily since she heard Wilson was being released. She didn't think about it every day before that, she said, because "I knew he wasn't getting out."