Editorial, The Editorial Board, The (Raleigh) News & Observer, Dec 10, 2020
Prior to the Civil War, Alamance County overwhelmingly opposed seceding from the Union. A century and a half later, some county officials there have apparently changed their minds.
At least that’s the way it seems as a county judge, the sheriff and local police continue to act as if Alamance County is no longer bound by the U.S. Constitution.
On Oct. 31, Alamance County deputies and Graham police pepper-sprayed a mostly Black group of people marching to the polls and peacefully exercising their right to assemble. Twelve were arrested the group’s leader, The Rev. Greg Drumwright, was charged with felony assault on an officer and obstruction of justice. The American Civil Liberties Unions and other groups have sued the Alamance County sheriff and the Graham police chief alleging they violated the marchers’ First Amendment rights.
In May, the Alamance County sheriff said he would not enforce Gov. Roy Cooper’s order to close ACE Speedway because it violated rules against large gatherings during the pandemic. The race track was later forced to close as a public health hazard.
The county’s latest defiance came on Tuesday when visiting District Court Judge Fred Wilkins closed a plea hearing to the media. His fig-leaf excuse was that coronavirus restrictions prohibited people not involved in the case.
While deputies kept other members of the media from entering the courthouse, Tom Boney Jr., publisher of The Alamance News, managed to get inside. He presented an objection to the closing from his company as well as the Triad City Beat and The News & Observer. The objection said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that courtrooms cannot be closed without a written order explaining why.
Wilkins, noting that there were other people in the courtroom, told Boney, “This courtroom is not closed to the public; it’s closed to you.” When Boney persisted, the judge threatened him with contempt and had him forcibly removed in handcuffs, though he was released outside without charges.
Lawyers for The News & Observer will ask the state Court of Appeals to order that Alamance County courtrooms be open to the media, which is to say, the public. It can easily be done within coronavirus precautions. The number of reporters could be limited, or one reporter could serve as pool reporter. At a minimum, reporters could view the proceedings remotely.
None of those solutions were weighed by Judge Wilkins. Instead, he willy-nilly tossed out Boney and the First Amendment. The judge may say he is concerned about the coronavirus. But it’s more likely he’s worried about public scrutiny of dubious actions taken by prosecutors, the county sheriff and Graham police.
The hearing Wilkins closed to the media involved charges against a white woman accused of using her truck last August in an attempt to run over two 12-year-old girls, one Black and one Hispanic, with whom she had exchanged words. The defendant, Sandrea Brazee, 52, drove past the girls, then did a U-turn and came back at them, her vehicle jumping the curb in the process.
The girls avoided the vehicle and were unhurt, but a Graham police officer witnessed the incident. Brazee was charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, but after a grand jury declined to indict her, the district attorney reduced the charges to misdemeanors. Brazee pleaded guilty and on Tuesday, Wilkins gave her two consecutive 60-day sentences, which were suspended, 12-months on probation and a $1,000 fine.
All court proceedings should be open to the public or its representatives. But it’s especially true in a case with racial overtones in a county where race relations are strained. Resolving the case out of sight only adds to concerns among minorities that there is a double standard for justice in Alamance County.
It’s time for state leaders and higher courts to step in and remind Alamance County that it’s still part of the United States and constitutional rights apply to all equally.