Bledsoe may surrender files, tapes

by Brian Clarey and Jordan Green

True-crime writer Jerry Bledsoe’s multi-part series “Cops in Black & White” has been featured in the Rhinoceros Times since August 2006 and has landed both the writer, the paper and its editor and publisher in libel court. This week he may be ordered to surrender his reporting materials on the controversial series.

Judge Brad Long had not made his decision at press time whether to order Bledsoe to release his notes and files in the libel suit filed by Officer Julius Fulmore and Lt. Brian James.

The decision comes after argument from lawyers from both parties on Wednesday.

Seth Cohen, who represents Bledsoe and the Rhinoceros Times, called the plaintiffs’ efforts to obtain Bledsoe’s reporting materials “a very serious constitutional issue,” suggesting that if Bledsoe’s reporting materials were released, sources would be reluctant to talk to him and other reporters in the future.

“It would be a stab in the heart to any investigative journalist in the area,” Cohen said. “They want to go through all his notes. He doesn’t do five-minute interviews. He does four-, five-hour interviews. He uses anonymous sources.”

Bledsoe’s reportage of the Wray case is contained in 72 legal pads of notes, about 80 hours of recorded interviews and several boxes of documents.

“There is embarrassing personal information in there,” Cohen said. “He sometimes agrees to not use certain information. His sources trust him. That’s how you get good stories. That’s why if you allow them to go through his notes, that’s a severe blow to the First Amendment, free speech and a robust press.”

Amiel Rossabi, attorney for plaintiffs Fulmore and James, argued that without reviewing Bledsoe’s reporting materials, it would be difficult to ascertain whether he knowingly published false information.

Special Prosecutor Jim Coman of the NC Justice Department testified that Bledsoe told him that the three reasons for writing the “Cops In Black and White” series in the Rhinoceros Times were to get City Manager Mitchell Johnson fired, to restore David Wray’s reputation and to show “that political correctness is the order of the day in Guilford County.”

The final point was at variance with the plaintiff’s complaint, which contended that Bledsoe intended “to show that political correctness is more important than truth in Guilford County.”

“When I asked for communications between the Rhinoceros Times and Jerry Bledsoe,” Rossabi said, “they produced none. Mr. Coman said [on the stand] that there must have been something. They’ve given false answers as to whether there’s some agreement. Was there a contract? Did John Hammer say, “You can write these articles and I’ll pay you five dollars’? Did John Hammer say, “You can write this article and I’ll put it on the front page’? That agreement is anywhere along the spectrum from, “You can write whatever you want and I’ll publish it’ to, “Boy, we can make some changes in Guilford County. We can restore David Wray’s reputation and get Mitch Johnson fired.’

Guilford County Assistant District Attorney Walt Jones, formerly a defense lawyer for Fulmore and James, testified that he contacted Coman when the State Bureau of Investigation began its investigation of the Greensboro Police Department to let him know that Fulmore would be happy to cooperate. Jones testified that he met Bledsoe in his law office in the fall of 2006.

“As best I can recall, I told him that Fulmore was a good, honest officer, and that he was not on the take.” Jones said he gave Bledsoe the names of eight sources, including Al Stewart, a former Greensboro police captain, and David Smith, a retired US Attorney.

“The first thing we talked about was Fulmore, and it was clear he [Bledsoe] didn’t hold a high opinion of him. I told him I assumed Sanders was the source of the information. I told him to approach that very carefully because it was clear that Sanders and Fulmore loathed each other. There had also been a contention made that Jay [Julius] Fulmore was on the take and was working as a mole and drug dealer for a local drug dealer named Terry Bracken….

“I told him that David Smith had worked on an OCDETF [Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force] task force that targeted Bracken, and would tell him that Sanders hated Fulmore, and Fulmore had busted his A-S-S trying to catch Bracken.”

Jones said that in a subsequent conversation with Smith the retired US Attorney indicated that he had not heard from Bledsoe.

Jones stopped short of testifying that the articles were deceptive.

“I take an issue with some of the accuracy of the reports,” he said. “That is, I don’t believe Jay Fulmore is a drug dealer.”

Although he contacted Bledsoe about errors in an installment about Greensboro police Officer Stacy Morton, Jones testified that he did not contact the writer about inaccuracies in his articles about Fulmore.

“Did you ever in any specific instance say, “This is false and I’ve got the evidence to show that it was false’?” Cohen asked.

“No, sir,” Jones responded.

Also at issue was Cohen’s role as attorney for Bledsoe and the Rhino’s civil case, but also as representative for interested parties in a related criminal proceeding.

Rossabi raised the question of whether it was a conflict of interest for Cohen to represent both Bledsoe and Detective Scott Sanders, the reporter’s primary source and a member of the defunct special intelligence section who has been indicted for obstruction of justice in relation to an investigation of Fulmore.

“Mr. Cohen is Mr. Sanders’ lawyer,” Rossabi said. “He is his criminal defense lawyer. Mr. Sanders has been identified as a source not only in the documents they produced but in the articles that were written. It’s an interesting dichotomy. If there is something in Bledsoe’s notes that said Mr. Sanders lied, Mr. Cohen can’t release it. Whether or not Mr. Bledsoe spoke with Mr. Sanders, we don’t know that….”

“Something about that does seem vaguely troublesome,” Judge Long said of Cohen’ cross-representation.

Cohen said he discussed his cross-representation with Sanders, Bledsoe and the Rhinoceros Times, and all gave their approval. He said, “There’s absolutely no conflict of interest.”