RALEIGH, NC – A North Carolina Superior Court judge put a small town newspaper editor behind bars last month after one of his reporters used an audio recorder for purposes note-taking in a murder trial – a punishment the newspaper and media rights groups deem excessive.
Judge Stephan Futrell sentenced Gavin Stone, editor of the Richmond County Daily Journal, to five days in prison before sending the editor to jail. Stone was released the next day but still faces the possibility of more time in custody.
Brian Bloom, the newspaper’s editor, admitted his reporter should not have had the tape recorder in court because it was not allowed, but criticized the judge’s decision to jail an editor for a minor offense committed by a colleague.
“The sentence does not match the crime,” he said. âLet’s put it in perspective: you stop a murder trial not once, but twice, because a guy had a tape recorder sitting next to him on a bench in a courtroom. Let’s put our priorities in place here.
Futrell did not respond to a request for comment.
Superior Court rules allow electronic media and photographic coverage of public court proceedings, but give judges the power to ban the technology.
Writer Matthew Sasser, who has only worked at the newspaper since January, brought the recorder into the courtroom on June 21 and 22 after being checked by courthouse security, Bloom said.
Stone, who in January 2020 received a letter from another judge berating him for taking a photo inside a courtroom, knew cell phones were banned and was told at the time that ‘He was not allowed to bring a “cell phone, camera or any other recording device into the courthouse” unless he had permission from a judge.
Remembering only the cell phone ban, Stone told Sasser that an audio recorder was fine. Sasser used the device during a break to question a source in the courtroom. When Futrell learned that Sasser had the recorder, he ordered the reporter to remove it from his courtroom.
Sasser returned to writing. A bailiff called him to come back to court to speak with the judge and Stone walked him home.
The two expected the judge to speak to them behind closed doors, but were surprised when a bailiff directed them inside the courtroom, where Futrell stopped the trial and found the editor in chief and journalist in contempt of court. The judge sentenced Stone to five days in prison and a $ 500 fine for Sasser.
âI was blown away that the decision was made so quickly,â Stone said. âIt happened so fast. There was no real way to deal with it in the moment and recognize what I was even involved in. All of a sudden I’m in orange.
Bloom hastily found a lawyer who appealed and got Stone out of jail the next day.
“It’s a little disturbing when a judge starts contempt proceedings over the use of a discreet, silent, pocket-sized device that a journalist uses to do their job in a courtroom,” said said Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and assistant professor of journalism at Elon University.
Jonathan Jones, a private attorney from Durham who deals with free speech cases, called the judge’s ruling “extremely unusual.” Jones said an appeals court should find Stone was unfairly charged with direct criminal contempt since he was not the one disrupting court proceedings. He said Stone was entitled to a lawyer before Futrell convicted him and that debate is on whether Sasser deserved to be charged with contempt.
The newspaper’s appeal is due to be heard on July 16. Futrell has removed the original penalties imposed on Stone and Sasser and is allowing an appeals court to decide whether to charge the editor and reporter up to $ 500 each and serve up to 30 days in jail. .
Under North Carolina law, courts can punish someone for criminal contempt if the act was preceded by a clear warning from the court that the conduct was improper. A person charged with criminal contempt can be punished with a formal reprimand, jail time of up to 30 days, a fine of up to $ 500, or any combination of the three.
The newspaper stopped covering the murder trial after Stone was taken into custody, in part out of fear the judge would retaliate. He did not report Stone’s arrest or Sasser’s fine.