By Kelan Lyons, NC Newsline
This story mentions sexual assault.
It was April 2022, and come summer 66-year-old Bobby Norfleet would begin another year behind bars. He bore the marks of 44 years in North Carolina prisons. He had a lump in his left leg. He didn’t have any teeth. His dentures had broken, so talking was difficult.
Bobby’s younger brother Carnell had been trying to find a way to bring him home. He had called attorneys and a judge before hearing a hard truth: Bobby had to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Bobby had been convicted at the wrong time. If he’d gone to prison earlier, he might have been paroled decades sooner. And if he’d gone to prison later, he would have received a much lighter sentence.
And if he’d had a different lawyer, maybe he wouldn’t still be locked up.
Instead, Bobby had grown old in prison. His mind and body deteriorated as the years passed, further and further removed from the life he lived before confinement: cooking fried chicken, grits and fish cakes for Carnell and the rest of his siblings; chiding them for sneaking into the kitchen to steal food before he was finished.
It was about this time last spring that a prison caseworker contacted Susan Pollitt, a supervising attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina.
“Bobby Norfleet is a 66-year-old man being routinely raped and passed around serving a life sentence,” the caseworker said in a message sent April 21, 2022. “He set his girlfriend’s back porch on fire after a mutual fight. It didn’t burn that house down or anything. It only burned half the porch, and he’s been in prison since 1979 because of it. I really wonder what was going on with the justice system in Washington County, North Carolina in 1979.”
Broke and in trouble
Charles Busby had been practicing law for only nine months when a Washington County judge appointed him to represent Bobby Norfleet in May 1979. Bobby didn’t have any money to hire an attorney himself; he told the court he only had $10 to his name.
The pay for court-appointed attorneys was so low that few Washington County lawyers were willing to represent clients like Bobby. Busby even knew an attorney who got himself declared incompetent to practice criminal law so he wouldn’t have to represent poor defendants.
“At that time, there simply was no one else around to take care of all this stuff,” Busby said in an interview with NC Newsline.
But Busby did take those cases. He shuddered to think of what would happen to defendants if they didn’t have lawyers to challenge police and prosecutors’ charges in the courtroom.
“They needed some help,” Busby said.
Help was what Bobby sorely needed. He’d been accused of setting a woman’s porch on fire. No one was hurt — half the porch burned, and the flames didn’t reach the house — but he faced a life sentence nonetheless. At the time life was the only possible punishment for arson in North Carolina.
About a month after getting the case, Busby filed a motion questioning Bobby’s capacity to understand the charges against him. On July 20, a Washington County Superior Court judge ordered Bobby committed to Dorothea Dix Hospital for up to 60 days. The judge directed psychiatric hospital staff to produce a report on Bobby’s condition so the court could hold a hearing on whether to proceed with the criminal charges.
There’s no indication anyone at Dix ever determined Bobby’s capacity, or if they did, that evaluation was not submitted to the court. But that didn’t stop the case from moving forward.
A grand jury indicted Bobby for arson and misdemeanor assault on a female on Aug. 27, 1979. Bobby pled guilty the next day. Court records from that day show Bobby acknowledged he could be sentenced to life in prison. But the space indicating the minimum possible sentence was left blank. Norfleet wrote his initials on the line.
Superior Court Judge James Strickland accepted the plea, finding that it was Bobby’s “informed choice,” one he had made “freely, knowingly and voluntarily.”
Later that day, Strickland sentenced Bobby to imprisonment “for the term of his natural life.”
Busby had let his client plead guilty to a crime that carried an automatic mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison without any terms and conditions of the plea.
Bobby Norfleet, a poor, 23-year-old Black man with a 10th-grade education whose mental capacity was suspect, would grow old in prison. Eventually, Strickland’s statement implied, he would die there.
A dispute, and a life forever changed
The Norfleets are a large family. Seven of the children grew up in and near Plymouth in the 1960s, moving from town to town in eastern North Carolina.
Their parents separated when the kids were young, leaving their mother to stretch the $4 a day she earned as a housecleaner to ensure her children had a roof over their head and food in their bellies.
At one point they moved to Roper, a small town in Washington County. David, one of Bobby’s younger brothers, said the kids would have to pump their own water to bring it into the house. Sometimes when it was cold, the pipes would freeze. The kids would build a fire around the pipe outside, burning paper and little pieces of wood to thaw the ice inside.
When he was a young teenager, Bobby took over most of the cooking duties for his siblings. He’d make sandwiches for everyone. In time, he started emulating his mother and fixing more complex meals like raisin pudding over rice, grits and cornbread.
“He was a good cook,” David said. “And everything he cooked, we didn’t complain. We ate it.”
Only a year apart in age, Bobby and David were close as kids. David recalled how four of the brothers would give one another nicknames when they played “house” together. David was “Luck Driver,” another brother was “Luck Lover,” Bobby was “Buddy Way Thimble,” Carnell was “Lock Bonds.”
Bobby was always clowning around looking for a laugh from his siblings, cutting up a rag into a hat and wearing it on his head.
That’s how David remembers Bobby: a class clown, someone who loved to laugh and sing and dance. His personality was magnetic. Their friends always wanted Bobby around, no matter what they were doing.
“If there weren’t no Bobby, the fun wasn’t there,” David said.
The two brothers lived together at a house on Wilson Street in Plymouth when they were in their early 20s. Eventually, David got tired of smoking weed and getting high. He started trying to get his life together, going to church and living with his pastor before moving to Virginia.
“But Bobby was still doing his thing, dancing around, smoking his weed, partying a little bit,” David said. “He wasn’t no trouble or nothing like that.”
Bobby did get in trouble soon thereafter. David said Bobby and a woman in the neighborhood had been getting high together. The pair lived down the street from each other. In May of 1979, the two got into a fight. David said the woman bit a piece of Bobby’s face off. Bobby then lit her back porch on fire while she and seven other people were in the house.
Authorities issued a warrant for his arrest that same day. A judge appointed Busby to the case two days later.
Sentencing reforms come too late for Bobby
Seven days after Bobby lit the blaze, state legislators passed the Fair Sentencing Act, an attempt by then-Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. to make sentencing practices more equitable and predictable.
Before the bill, judges had broad discretion in sentencing in North Carolina, often meting out wildly different sentences for similar offenses. But with the Fair Sentencing Act, judges would be given a standard punishment term that they must impose, barring certain exceptions.
That new law only applied to future crimes, and wouldn’t go into effect for two more years, but it dramatically changed sentencing laws in North Carolina.
The reform abolished life sentences for first-degree arson. Instead, it split the crime into degrees; a person like Bobby, who didn’t have any prior felony convictions, could spend up to 20 years in prison if they were convicted of Class C felony arson. But they also would get credit for good behavior, effectively cutting their sentence in half.
About a year into his sentence Bobby petitioned the court, challenging his imprisonment. He claimed that the “B.H.N.” he signed on the line beside the minimum sentence stood for “Bible Heaven Nation.” He wrote that Busby had told him that after he had served one year of his life sentence, he would be sent to the Bible Heaven Nation rehabilitative program for a year and then get paroled.
Superior Court Judge Frank R. Brown denied the petition without holding a hearing.
Busby told NC Newsline the allegations from the 1980 petition were false.
“I’ll go with Bobby as long as I can go with him and help him, but I believe one of the reasons Judge Brown denied his motion was because he pushed the envelope too far,” Busby said. “If I did something wrong, I hope that I can admit it, but when they start making up stuff, that’s where I have to draw the line.”
In Central Prison, a family reunion
The years passed, and Bobby grew older as others came and left prison, serving decades’ less time for the same conviction.
One of the people who came and went was Bobby’s younger brother Carnell. Bobby and Carnell laid eyes on each other sometime in the early 1980s, when Carnell spent three years at Central Prison, the same place as Bobby.
Carnell said he had wanted to get sent to Central to serve his time on theft-related charges because he wanted vengeance. He wanted to punish several men who had sexually assaulted Bobby, but he never figured out their names.
“I just loved my family, so I went there to take them three out,” Carnell said. “When you’re in prison, locked up, whatever happens to you, happens to you. If you ain’t got no brother there with you, or somebody close to you to fight with you, you’re all by yourself.”
Like David, Carnell got his life together by turning to the church. But the genesis of that change was a rehabilitative program he started attending when he was in prison. That program helped him see that he was responsible for his own actions, that just because someone did him wrong didn’t mean he had to hurt them back.
Carnell said he had that opportunity because he knew he was going to go home.
Unlike his brother, he didn’t have a life sentence.
Bobby, Carnell said, “didn’t have the same chance.”
The politics of parole
Bobby was eligible for parole after serving 20 years in prison, in 1999. The North Carolina Parole Commission denied him.
The Parole Commission’s records from Bobby’s case are confidential. It is unclear why they denied his release. But those eligible for supervised release from prison are at the mercy of the politics around parole, said Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at Duke Law’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice.
“It used to be that generally if you did well in prison, you were going to get released because we did not want to overcrowd the prisons,” Finholt said. “And the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric of the ’90s pretty much wiped that out.”
In short, Bobby could have just been convicted at the wrong time. If he’d been convicted later, once the Fair Sentencing Act was in effect, he would have gotten less time in prison. And if he’d been convicted earlier, perhaps he could have been released before the politics around parole shifted in the 1990s.
“If he had been convicted in 1969 instead of 1979, I believe he would not have stayed in prison into the ‘90s,” Finholt said.
Even Charles Busby didn’t expect Bobby to stay locked up for so long. The attorney said it was hard in 1979, before later sentencing reforms, to estimate how long a defendant would be imprisoned. Clients would ask him how long they’d be locked up, and he couldn’t give them an exact answer.
“But you could tell them it was going to be considerably less than what the statute said,” Busby said. “If you went in on a straight-up plea of life, there was no expectation that you were going to spend the rest of your life in the prison system. None.”
Expectation or not, that was Bobby’s reality. And he isn’t alone. There are many people who took plea deals on the advice of a lawyer in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Finholt said, based on the assumption that they would get to go home before the end of their sentence.
And their attorneys let them, Finholt said, because they expected those clients to get paroled, so long as they didn’t get in trouble while they were imprisoned.
Then the circumstances around parole changed, and those people stayed behind bars.
Data provided by Finholt shows there are 498 people in prison who are over age 65 and eligible for parole. Almost half are Black. By contrast, about 22% of North Carolina’s residents are Black.
Busby said he understands it sounds “insane” for Bobby to plead guilty to a crime that carried a life sentence. Yet he suggested putting yourself in Bobby’s shoes: prosecutors have got solid evidence against you, you feel guilty over what you did, and you’ve been in jail for three months without having been convicted of anything. It wasn’t unheard of, Busby said, for someone to take a guilty plea and then regret it once they went to prison.
But, Busby said, “I did not expect him to be in prison any more than, possibly, 20 years.”
‘A violent place to live’
Bobby’s health declined the longer he spent in prison. He started having to use a walker to get around, after he complained he couldn’t put weight on his left leg.
The changes weren’t just physical: Carnell said Bobby’s schizophrenia and bipolar disorder grew worse as the years ticked by, exacerbated by the trauma of prison, despite receiving medication to manage his conditions.
However, growing old and having a mental illness aren’t sufficient reasons for a person to be sent home on medical release, under North Carolina law.
There are several ways elderly, sick and disabled people can get out of prison because of their health, but the criteria are narrow. To qualify, imprisoned people must be so sick that they’re likely to die within six months, have a condition that makes them “permanently and totally disabled,” or be at least 65 years old and have chronic, debilitating diseases related to aging.
In each instance, the sick, elderly or disabled person must be so ill that they don’t pose a public safety risk.
“You do have to essentially be dying in order to access that medical or compassionate release provision and policy from inside a North Carolina prison,” Finholt said. “There’s no provision for ‘age’ at all.”
Per a Department of Public Safety memo issued last June, anyone convicted of certain felonies — including similar cases decided before sentencing reforms like Bobby’s — are ineligible for medical release. The same restrictions apply to anyone on death row or convicted of a crime requiring them to register as a sex offender.
“Our current compassionate release policy in North Carolina does not permit anyone with a life sentence to get out, really,” Finholt said. “Almost all the folks who are in for life have either Class A or Class B felonies, which are expressly exempted from the compassionate release mechanism.”
A report produced by the Department of Correction indicates 10 incarcerated people were considered for medical release in 2022. One was denied, seven were released and two cases are still pending.
In 2019, the Parole Commission considered nine people for medical release. Seven received it, and two died before a decision was made.
The percentage of the incarcerated population older than ages 60 and 70 is increasing as those with long sentences remain behind bars. The state tried to account for the increased health costs of the aging prison population by establishing a long-term palliative care unit at Central Prison.
One solution, Pollitt said, is to let people like Bobby go home. Those who have significant disabilities and who are growing old in prison are difficult and costly to care for, especially when the prisons are so short-staffed.
“There needs to be increased mechanisms to let people out of prison when they can safely live in the community,” Pollitt said.
Until then, Finholt said, someone like Bobby, “who is weak enough that he poses no public safety threat, but also is at risk himself because of that physical infirmity, just has to live in a situation where he’s treated inhumanely because of being in-between a normal, healthy person who can take care of himself, and a terminally ill person who is going to die in a short period of time.”
It isn’t unusual for elderly people to be abused in prison, said Sandra Hardee, the executive director of NC-CURE. Hardee and her organization keep in contact with a wide network of incarcerated people. They hear regularly about elderly people being forced to pay to use their own cot, unable to defend themselves against younger prisoners looking to extort them. Elderly people who are slow-moving get kicked or hit because they aren’t able to get out of someone’s way fast enough.
“It’s just a violent place to live,” Hardee said. “And so if you have people unable to defend themselves, [or] get out of people’s way, they are just prey to violent offenders that are there.”
A reason for hope
Pollitt went to see Bobby a few months after the caseworker messaged her. She met a “sweet” man who had trouble walking and talking.
She asked Bobby about the “B.H.N” he signed on his court documents in 1979. He told her they were his initials, not “Bible Heaven Nation.”
Pollitt thought that line could be the key to Bobby’s freedom. It said that Bobby “could” get life in prison for pleading guilty.
“It doesn’t say that he ‘will,’ and that’s all he could get,” Pollitt said.
Pollitt started working with other attorneys to try to get Bobby released. On Dec. 9, 2022, Laura N. Gibson, chief public defender for the Second Judicial District, filed a motion asking the court to void Bobby’s guilty plea because it was not “intelligent, voluntary, and knowing.” She also alleged that Busby had been ineffective in representing Bobby, pointing to his inexperience at the time.
“By all reasonable guidelines now applicable to indigent defense in North Carolina, attorney Busby was not qualified to represent Mr. Norfleet on such a serious offense with such serious consequences for the defendant,” Gibson wrote.
After all, he had been practicing law for less than a year when he was appointed to the case. Gibson wrote that, under current practices, lawyers cannot be appointed to represent clients charged with certain serious felonies unless those attorneys have been practicing law for at least three years and have tried to verdict at least three jury trials.
Busby’s inexperience wasn’t the only issue, Gibson argued. He also let Bobby plead guilty to life in prison just three months after Bobby had been charged and one day after he’d been indicted. Busby didn’t even have the court follow up on the capacity determination a Washington County Superior Court judge had ordered, which could have determined whether Bobby had understood what he was facing.
Until Gibson filed the motion, Busby hadn’t thought about Bobby’s case for years. In an interview with NC Newsline, Busby said the district attorney at the time was a very skilled trial lawyer, and the case against Bobby seemed tight.
Maybe Bobby wasn’t willing to roll the dice in a jury trial, Busby said.
“I just don’t know that he had a lot of fight in him at that time,” Busby said.
Gibson also brought up the changes legislators made to sentencing laws after Bobby lit the porch on fire. Under the Fair Sentencing Act, Bobby’s presumptive sentence would have been 20 years, not including the good-time credit he might have received.
Instead, he had spent 43 years and three months in prison. That’s longer than he would have served for the maximum aggravated sentence that could be imposed for first-degree arson under the law today.
“Although the changes brought by the Fair Sentencing Act and other subsequent sentencing law amendments were prospective, they render Mr. Norfleet’s current life sentence unjust,” Gibson wrote, especially since Bobby hadn’t been convicted of a felony before going to prison.
Bobby’s day in court
Bobby appeared in court on Dec. 15, 2022, entering the Washington County courtroom in chains.
David and Bobby had kept in touch over the years, trading letters back and forth. But at some point, Bobby stopped writing. David had always wondered why. But when he saw his brother brought into that courtroom, hunched over from back pain, ambling to his seat with a walker, he got it.
“I said ‘I can understand why, now, he wasn’t writing me,’” David said. “He probably just couldn’t do it.”
In a nine-page order issued the same day Bobby appeared in court, Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons acknowledged the harm and abuse Bobby had been subjected to as an elderly imprisoned man. He also noted the changes in North Carolina’s sentencing laws since 1979. If those laws had been on the books, Sermons wrote, Bobby would have gotten out of prison about 36 years ago.
Sermons did not rule on whether Busby had been ineffective in representing Bobby. But he did make a finding that Bobby hadn’t pleaded guilty “knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily” because there was no indication that the court had told him life in prison was the only sentence that could be imposed. Sermons struck the original plea and allowed Bobby to plead guilty to attempted arson. Bobby was resentenced to a 10-year maximum sentence. He’d be given credit for the time he’d served already.
Bobby was going home. At 67 years old, his life would begin again.
“Even the prison transportation officers were clapping at the judge’s ruling,” Pollitt said.
Bobby left prison on Dec. 19, 2022. Eight days later, having just spent his first Christmas with his family in more than four decades, he slouched in a chair in his sister’s home, his cane resting by his hip. He tapped his foot on the carpet, letting a song travel through his body as he kept a beat on his legs.
“It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change gon’ come. Oh, yes it will,” he sang, reciting the entire Sam Cooke song from memory.
Bobby lived with David in Virginia for about a month. The brothers became reacquainted as they put puzzles together, racing to see who could finish first. The past was a shadow over all their interactions. Bobby would constantly bring up their childhood, memories of a life before prison.
“You talk to him now, that’s all he wants to talk about: the past,” David said.
Bobby refused to talk about his time behind bars. When David pressed him, he’d say there isn’t anything to discuss.
“You’re skipping 43 years of conversation,” David would tell him. “But I just can’t seem to ever get it out of him.”
Carnell understands. He knows that when you go to prison, your life freezes in time. Your goals, your motivations: it can all come to a halt. “You don’t want to remember stuff that happened in prison,” he said. “You’ve got to let that pass.”
He summarized the past four-plus decades of his brother’s life in five words: “Forty-three years of nothing.”
Carnell said Bobby’s mental state significantly deteriorated in prison. The trauma manifests in different ways now that he’s out. Bobby smokes any paper lying around — not just rolling papers, but regular paper.
“He’ll roll it up and think he’s smoking to get high, but he’s not. It’s just his mind telling him,” Carnell said.
Sometimes Bobby will wake up at 3 in the morning and sit in the bath for hours. Once in a while, when Carnell tells him to turn a light out, Bobby says he can’t because it’s the sun that’s shining. Or he’ll watch a show involving police officers and start screaming to turn off the television, seemingly unable to understand that he’s watching a show, that he’s safe.
But Bobby isn’t broken. He still smiles when he talks, laughs when he reminisces about the past. His words can be hard to decipher, but his body language is easy to read: unbridled joy.
Three months after getting out of prison, Bobby sits in the room he shares with another man in an assisted living-facility in Williamstown. Carnell visits him at least three times a week.
“I’m doing all I can now to make a dream come true for him,” Carnell said.
Carnell may be a little brother, but he takes care of Bobby. He chides him for smoking and tells him to clean his room. Then he starts picking things up off the floor, unable to help himself from tidying up.
Bobby slips in and out of stories about the past, talking about the present and future in brief interludes, but always finding his way back to what it was like growing up.
At one point, he gets serious. He says it helps him to talk about his experience. He doesn’t want anyone else to go through what he did.
“Prison ain’t nothing for nobody,” he says.
Going to prison at age 23, spending 43 years there; Bobby has lived most of his life in a cell. He no longer lives in any of the houses where he grew up. He’s not living with any of his beloved family members.
Often, he’s not even living in the present moment, preferring instead to recall the life he led before prison: the songs he remembers, the mischief he got into, the love he has for his siblings, like the time Carnell fell asleep and almost burned the house down with a lit joint. Drinking a six-pack of soda with David in the park. The chocolate cake he’d make for his brothers and sisters.
But if you ask him whether he feels like he’s home, he smiles and leans back on his bed.
“I’m home,” he says, blowing watermelon-scented smoke out of a vape. “I’m free now.”