This article was updated on Sept. 11. A Guilford County superior court judge alleges that a local lawyer violated a gag order to not discuss the contents of police body camera footage depicting events between a young black man and his friends and members of the Greensboro Police Department in September 2016, and is now facing disciplinary action.
A group of local activists say the disciplinary proceedings, initiated on Aug. 27 by Guilford County Superior Court Judge Susan Bray is an attack on lawyer Graham Holt, and that he plans to defend himself.
“He’s being illegally and wrongfully singled out,” said Lewis Pitts, a local retired lawyer and a close friend to Holt at a press conference on Sept. 5.
Bray says Holt violated the gag order in an email that Holt sent to city council members and the mayor on Aug. 9. In the email, Holt describes in explicit detail the interactions between Zared Jones and his friends, and members of the Greensboro Police Department as depicted on police-body camera footage. Holt, who formerly represented Jones, contends that his former client and his friends were racially targeted by Greensboro police in downtown in September 2016. The publicly released email discloses additional details about the officers’ interactions with Jones and his friends that were not previously available in a video captured on a cell phone by a civilian and Jones’ complaint to the police department.
In the email — which was released by the city and posted online through the city’s open data portal in keeping with its public records law — Holt states that he “drafted [the] letter alone and [is] not asking [city council and the mayor] to violate Judge Bray’s order nor [is he] in violation of the order by delivery of this letter.”
The gag order, issued in January 2018, states that “attorney Graham Holt and his client Zared Jones shall sign a pledge of confidentiality and are not to disclose or discuss the body-worn camera recordings except with each other or in association with any official hearing where they are present together with the Police Community Review Board.” Additional petitions were granted to members of city council, including the mayor, Clifton Donnell Ruffin — one of Jones’s friends who was also arrested that same night — the city manager, legal counsel, the police community review board and the chief of police to view and discuss the body-worn camera recordings amongst themselves as long as they didn’t discuss the footage with outside parties as stated in near identical gag orders. As of Sept. 3, the city council said that they had not watched the recordings because of the gag order. Council members including at-large member Michelle Kennedy have said in the past that they would like to watch the footage and be able to publicly discuss it.
The state Court of Appeals upheld Bray’s 2018 gag order earlier this summer, saying it did not “violate the city’s First Amendment rights.”
According to the gag order, anyone who violates the orders could be fined up to $500 and face imprisonment of up to 30 days. Lewis said during the press conference that in the worst case scenario Holt could be disbarred.
UPDATE (Sept. 11): Holt, who has taken on multiple cases in the city that involve incidents of alleged police brutality against black and brown citizens, including the ongoing 2018 Marcus Deon Smith case, responded to Triad City Beat via text message on Tuesday.
“It never crossed my mind that I might be in violation of the order for communicating with city council about the content of the videos since both me and the city council were authorized to watch the videos,” said Holt.
Pitts argued that the city likely knew that the email sent by Holt would be posted on the city’s public website but chose not to seal the documents as should have been done. Pitts accused the city of allowing the email to be posted, making it seem like Holt violated the gag order.
“They could have pulled it on their own,” Pitts said. “They do that all the time.”
Greensboro City Attorney Chuck Watts said that his office did initially pull the message out of the portal after it was flagged by the public information office.
“We do have a process of making sure that nothing goes out that’s not appropriate,” Watts said on Tuesday. “Everything that goes in there is gonna be public. Stuff comes in throughout the week and every Friday or every other Friday, stuff is released.”
Watts said his office pulled the message because they were concerned that Judge Bray would view his office as participating with Holt in violating the order. His office then approached Bray to ask whether or not she would withhold the message from being posted publicly.
“She said she didn’t have any authority over that,” Watts said. “She had power over the party, who was Graham, but she does not have that over the city. It was out of [Holt’s] hands and the city has it and she can’t tell us what to do with it. We didn’t have any authority to withhold it either.”
In an email to Judge Bray from Holt dated Aug. 22, Holt argues that his sending the message through the public system wasn’t a violation of the order because the contents of the message were almost identical to a typed letter he sent to the same recipients almost one year ago.
“It has been over a year since I mailed the typed letter, and no one from the city has expressed any concern to me or, as far as I know, to the court,” Holt states in the email. “The letter was subject to the same public records law as the email. I assumed the city would make the same inferences I did, the same inferences I assumed they made about the letter I sent a year ago. And that inference is that the documents were covered by your orders and not releasable to the public.”
Brooks Fuller, director of the NC Open Government Coalition and an assistant professor of journalism at Elon University, said in an email to Triad City Beat that “it is reasonable for someone in his position to believe that it would not violate the spirit of the order to discuss the video with another person authorized to view it.”
Fuller said disbarment, while possible, takes a lot of procedural work before it can happen
“The way that the process works, he would be taken to the state bar,” Fuller said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of procedural work before [disbarment] can happen. [The bar] has to give the accused a chance to present evidence and call witnesses and to defend themselves.”
Whether or not Holt could be disbarred ultimately rests with the members of the disciplinary board, Fuller said.
“They’re gonna want to know as much as possible about the actions that the attorney took and whether they intended to violate the order,” Fuller said.
The contents of the now public email also include a damning account of what Holt claims are “police abuse and constitutional violations” by police officers on the night of Sept. 10, 2016, when Zared Jones, Clifton Ruffin, Aaron Garrett and Alfonso Thomas were arrested in downtown Greensboro.
A video (also below) taken by a civilian on a cell phone was posted on Youtube a few days after the incident and shows instances of Officer Samuel A. Alvarez, Cpl. Korey R. Johnson, Sgt. Steven Kory Flowers and Officer Floyd Wright interacting with and arresting the four black men. The YouTube footage shows Alvarez and one other officer grabbing Garrett and pulling him by his ankles, pulling his feet out from under him and then Tasing Garrett. The police body-camera footage, which is not public record according to state law, includes additional evidence of the officers “giving contradictory orders to all four men” and “[plotting] to arrest the young men long before the men had done anything but walk through downtown,” Holt writes in his email.
Holt’s characterization of the police body-camera video suggests that officers decided to arrest Ruffin without any indication that he had committed a crime.
“He doesn’t even know,” says one of the officers about Ruffin on the body camera footage, according to Holt’s account.
“We need to take care of him too,” says another, according to Holt.
Once Ruffin approached the Boiler Room, the bar where his friends were arrested, he was questioned by Officer Johnson and handcuffed, Holt said. Then he was reportedly grabbed and strangled by Officer Wright, who “wraps his arms around [Ruffin’s] neck and strangles him in a half-Nelson choke hold…[Ruffin’s] body is completely still while he is being choked and he clearly cannot breathe. Despite [Ruffin’s] lack of movement or resistance, Officer Floyd Wright continues to choke him as he repeatedly tells [Ruffin’s] to stop resisting.”
Ruffin and Jones were both charged with misdemeanor second-degree trespassing and misdemeanor intoxicated and disruptive. The Guilford County District Attorney’s office dropped the charges in May 2018.
A November 2017 letter by Capt. Teresa Biffle, commander of the professional standards division, said that the department’s internal investigation cleared the five officers involved of wrongdoing, stating that they “did not make a bias-based arrest, search, or seizure during their encounter with Mr. Jones on Sept. 10, 2016.” The letter went on to say that “the applicable chain of command determined the evidence available to the officers at the time of Mr. Jones’ arrest established probable cause for the arrest, and Mr. Jones’ arrest was therefore lawful.”
Ron Glenn, the police department’s public information officer, could not be reached for comment.
Activists are worried that Holt’s potential disbarment could hamper litigation in the wrongful death suit filed by the family of Marcus Smith.
“If Graham is disbarred… that could interfere with that case, he wouldn’t be able to be involved anymore,” Pitts said on Thursday. The case, which was filed in April by the Smith family against the city of Greensboro and eight police officers and a paramedic and EMT who were present when Smith died, requires a lawyer licensed to practice in the state of North Carolina to handle the case.
“The Marcus Smith isn’t likely to be able to proceed,” Pitts said if Holt is disbarred. “I think we wouldn’t be likely to find anybody else.”
However, Pitts said Holt will be fighting the disciplinary proceeding soon.
“He has and will be having a lawyer, and he will fight vigorously,” Pitts said. “He will be responding. He will contest highly.”
According to the initiation of disciplinary proceeding, Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour has been commissioned to conduct the proceeding against Holt on Sept. 30 while attorney Walter Kirk Burton will act as the prosecutor. Three local attorneys — Kearns Davis, Don D. Carter and former Chief District Court Judge Wendy M. Enochs — will serve on a committee to review the case and make recommendations to Judge Baddour.