NC journalists file emergency appeal to get court access

GRAHAM, N.C. (AP) — Three newspapers have asked the North Carolina Court of Appeals to order courts in a county where rally-goers were pepper sprayed and arrested to stop barring reporters from court proceedings.

Court staff in Alamance County have said limiting entry to defendants, victims and their attorneys was due to COVID-19, but attorneys for The News & Observer, Triad City Beat and Alamance News said in their filing Thursday that “dispensing justice behind closed doors” was unconstitutional and “undermines public trust in the judicial process,” The New & Observer reported.

The filing came after District Court Judge Fred Wilkins barred reporters from attending a Tuesday plea hearing for Sandra Warren Brazee, a white woman accused of driving her pickup truck at two 12-year-old Black girls. Tom Boney Jr., publisher of The Alamance News, was handcuffed and ordered out of a courtroom as he objected to a decision. He was then released.

“Even accepting that the COVID-19 pandemic creates a compelling need to safeguard public health by imposing some limits on access to courtrooms, the draconian restrictions imposed by Judge Wilkins were not necessary to serve that interest,” Attorney C. Amanda Martin wrote in the emergency appeal.

The week before, Wilkins had barred reporters from attending a court hearing for the Rev. Greg Drumwright, the organizer of the Oct. 31 get-out-the-vote rally in Graham that ended with police pepper-spraying and arresting participants.

The attorneys asked for a quick decision because cases stemming from racial injustice protests are set to be heard in the upcoming weeks.

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