Winston-Salem police have at least a dozen people to interview who were potential witnesses to the shooting death of Julius “Juice” Sampson in the parking lot at Hanes Mall in August.
A Forsyth County superior court judge ruled that the public will have to wait at least six months to hear 911 recordings from the shooting that took the life of Julius “Juice” Sampson last month.
Sampson, a 32-year-old black man, was shot in the parking lot of Hanes Mall in broad daylight on Aug. 6 following an argument with Robert Anthony Granato, a 22-year-old white man who is charged with murder. Although Winston-Salem police Chief Catrina Thompson said the police had uncovered no evidence of a racial motive, allegations that a racial slur epithet had been used in the argument prompted a social-media firestorm promoting an unfounded narrative that the city was covering up a racially motivated murder.
Press conferences led by Mayor Allen Joines, Chief Thompson and Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough, along with a vigil for the victim followed.
Forsyth County Resident Superior Court Judge David Hall ruled on Monday that five 911 recordings will remain under seal. The judge said he respects the news media’s First Amendment right to report on court proceedings, but was swayed by learning from District Attorney Jim O’Neill’s office that Winston-Salem police still have at least a dozen witnesses, including one person who lives out of state, to interview.
“In balancing all of these very important concerns, in my discretion I do not want to compromise this investigation,” Hall said. “I do not want to impede, rush the investigation if there is any putative eye or ear witness who we haven’t heard from.”
Hall agreed with prosecutors that releasing the recordings could potentially “contaminate” the accounts of witnesses who have yet to be identified.
“These are people who are giving contemporaneous accounts, people with information only known to the people who were there,” said Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin. “There are people who are yet to be interviewed who were inside the restaurant as the dispute was unfolding.”
The district attorney’s office and the defendant agreed that the recordings should remain sealed. Hall said his primary concern was that releasing them could compromise the investigation, but a secondary concern is that they might be prejudicial to the administration of justice. Prosecutors seized on that issue to argue that any hint that Granato wouldn’t receive a fair trial in Forsyth County could result in a change of venue, causing hardship and inconvenience to Sampson’s family and investigators who might be called to testify. Granato attended the hearing dressed in an orange jumpsuit while Sampson’s family sat in the gallery.
Judge Hall said he will hold a hearing to review the order sealing the 911 recordings on Feb. 26, 2020.
The Winston-Salem Journal and news stations WXII, WFMY and WGHP had sought the immediate release of the recordings. While the media entities — whom Judge Hall allowed to intervene in the criminal case as movants — did not get their wish, their lawyer Hugh Stevens said the scheduled review hearing was better than having the recordings sealed indefinitely.
“This has been proven to be a good way to keep track of the matter and not have it fall by the wayside,” he said.
Judge Hall said he will review the five recordings again and determine whether any parts can be released to the public without compromising the investigation, but he was doubtful that would be the case. Meanwhile, Paul James, Granato’s lawyer, suggested he could get together with lawyers from the district attorney’s office and produce a transcript of the recordings and potentially release it after submitting it to detectives for review. Judge Hall indicated that he would have no objections.
District Attorney Jim O’Neill cautioned that there’s no definitive time period when the recordings could be released without compromising the investigation.
“When does the investigation end?” he asked. “The answer is an investigation never really ends…. To say an investigation will be completed in 60 days would not be true…. The Winston-Salem Police Department may need to investigate right up to the time of the trial.”
O’Neill and Martin alluded to homicides that have taken place since Sampson’s death, and the district attorney took a dig at the news media for its focus on the Granato case.
“The chief made a statement that this case is not about race, but the media has latched on to that narrative,” O’Neill said. “When we have a child hit in the head while he’s playing with Play-Doh, we don’t get the same push from the media.”
While not disputing any of the information relayed in news media coverage, James said some of the “commentary in the newspaper was not factual,” and that it “muddied” the issues in the case.
“Mr. O’Neill and I are both constrained by rules of professional conduct, and we don’t try cases in the media,” James said. “So we read things that are not true, but we can’t say, ‘That’s bloody wrong.’”
Stevens defended his clients’ editorial judgment in covering the story.
“When the mayor holds a press conference, we cover it,” he said. “When the chief of police holds a press conference, we cover it. When the sheriff holds a press conference, we cover it. When people are upset and they hold a vigil, it’s a story. We respond to events when they unfold. What my clients are trying to do is let the public know everything they can without prejudicing either side. I make no apologies for the coverage. The coverage is there because it’s an important matter, and other people have made it an important matter.”
While upholding the order to seal the 911 recordings, Judge Hall validated the legitimacy of news coverage of the case. He said he “took judicial notice” of the extraordinary interest and media coverage in the case, of the various press conferences, the vigil, and the formation a “Justice for Juice” advocacy group.
“This is an important case,” he said.