Judge says police can’t look at reporter’s notes
The courts delivered a string of setbacks to two African-American officers with the Greensboro Police Department who are suing author Jerry Bledsoe and The Rhinoceros Times newspaper, but the plaintiffs’ lawyer says their case is still strong.
Superior Court Judge Brad Long of Randolph County said in an Aug. 1 order that testimony in June by NC Senior Deputy Attorney General Jim Coman and Assistant District Attorney Walt Jones was “important” in that much of the plaintiffs’ discovery motions were geared towards not substantiating claims about defamatory statements in Bledsoe’s articles in the Cops In Black and White series, but towards supporting allegations that the newspaper exists for the purpose of making money, achieving “improper and immoral results,” and deceiving readers; and that Bledsoe and brothers John Hammer and William Hammer formed a “scheme” to target Lt. Brian James, Officer Julius Fulmore and others “to deflect Guilford County citizens from the truths about illegal, tortuous and immoral actions taken, authorized and condoned by [former Chief] David Wray and his subordinates.”
Long noted that the plaintiffs acknowledged the basis of those claims were statements by Coman and Jones, and the judge found that they were not supported by the two witnesses’ testimony.
In one exception, Coman’s testimony mostly backed one of the plaintiffs’ allegations. The complaint contends that “Bledsoe has indicated three reasons for him writing stories in The Rhinoceros Times: to get [City Manager] Mitchell Johnson fired, to restore David Wray’s reputation, and to show that political correctness is more important than truth in Guilford County.” Long found that “the testimony of Mr. Coman did verify [the allegation] in part, with the exception that Mr. Bledsoe informed Mr. Coman that he intended the Series to show that political correctness is the order of the day, not that political correctness is more important than truth.”
Long also denied a motion by the plaintiffs to compel Bledsoe to turn over 70 to 80 hours of audio tape and other materials used to prepare the articles. The judge said the defendants had failed to establish that the information in the interviews was essential to establishing their claim of defamation.
Amiel Rossabi, a lawyer for the police officers, said he was appealing the ruling because Bledsoe was the only one who would know whether he received information indicating that what he was about to publish was false. The lawyer said he was not disheartened by the judge’s order even if he disagreed with it.
“Jim Coman absolutely testified that there was evidence there that Jerry Bledsoe has an ulterior motive,” he said. “I’ve got a prima facie case.”
Long did grant the plaintiffs two significant openings to advance their case. The judge ordered The Rhinoceros Times to supplement its responses to questions about its fact-finding procedures. Editor John Hammer has earlier said in court documents that he did not fact-check the series or make any effort to corroborate the facts; the newspaper’s responded to a question about unwritten fact-checking policies by saying that “with regard to ‘unwritten’ policies, guidelines or manuals, defendants are unclear what is meant by this question.”
As to the alleged scheme between the famous author and the weekly newspaper, Long ordered the defendants to “supplement their answers and disclose all intercourse of any type between Mr. Bledsoe and either of the Hammers as to how the Series came about.”
A more recent order from a separate jurist, Superior Court Judge Lindsay R. Davis Jr., clears a path for Bledsoe and The Rhinoceros Times to obtain new information for their defense. In response to interrogatories, the plaintiffs have denied the “genuineness” of several investigative reports by one of Bledsoe’s primary sources, indicted former police Detective Scott Sanders, along with an internal affairs report that references a polygraph examination of Fulmore that was conducted by a Winston-Salem police detective. The plaintiffs called transcripts of interviews involving Sanders “suspect,” and noted that the former detective procured computer software to alter recordings. Lawyer Seth Cohen, who represents Sanders, along with Bledsoe and The Rhinoceros Times, has said that there is no evidence to support the claim that Sanders manipulated any recordings.
Davis ordered the city of Greensboro to produce five original documents subpoenaed by the defendants to show that the reports relied upon by Bledsoe in his reporting “are true and accurate reports.”
Davis also granted a motion by the defendants to compel the city of Winston-Salem to produce a wide array of materials related to Detective JF Rogers’ polygraph examination of Fulmore. The plaintiffs had tried to quash the subpoena, and have pledged to establish that Bledsoe knew that Fulmore did not fail the polygraph test, and ignored or left the information out of one of his articles. The plaintiffs’ assertion contradicts a Greensboro police internal affairs report stating that Rogers believed Fulmore had exhibited deception.
The judge ordered the documents to be submitted under seal, and made available only to “counsel, consultants and witnesses,” and not to the plaintiffs or defendants themselves.
Rossabi said he was happy to have the courts review the materials, and had only sought to quash the subpoena to keep Bledsoe and the Hammers from obtaining the documents and then selectively publishing the material in The Rhinoceros Times in a fashion that would misrepresent his clients.
Another lawsuit related to the police controversy has also advanced through the court system recently. The city of Greensboro filed an answer to a civil complaint by a third African-American police officer, Lt. James Hinson, on Aug. 4. The cautious wording in the answer reflects the city’s need to insulate itself against liability and at the same time publicly defend its position of holding former members of police command staff accountable for alleged abuses. Hinson’s lawsuit names Wray and former Deputy Chief Randall Brady as defendants with the city.
The city’s response to Hinson’s claim that “starting around 2001 defendant Wray began creating problems for plaintiff in his work because of plaintiff’s race” is typical: “To the extent that an allegation is true… it is denied that any such action was pursuant to a policy or practice of the city and that any such action initiated or taken by any police officer was within the course and scope of that’s officer’s employment.”
In its defense, the city attempts to create as much distance as possible between itself and codefendants Wray and Brady, arguing that “any conduct about which the plaintiff complains on the part of Wray or Brady was not at the direction of the city” and “the plaintiff was not subjected to any purposeful discrimination by the city, and race was not a substantial or motivating factor in any action taken by the city.”
The city also claims that Hinson’s grievances were addressed when he was reinstated following a period of suspension, and after Wray resigned and Brady retired. The day after the chief’s resignation, Hinson and Johnson executed a memorandum of agreement that the city argues “resolved the matters upon which plaintiff’s complaint are based.”
In return for reinstating Hinson and ensuring that the investigations carried out by Wray’s special intelligence section would not negatively affect the lieutenant’s career advancement, Hinson acknowledged that the city had “exercised due diligence in the investigation of events that led to his suspension as soon as this matter was brought to their attention. Further that the city used all necessary resources to determine the true facts.”
On one significant factual claim, the city contradicts Hinson. The lawsuit states that the lieutenant “is informed and believes that his photo was included in the lineup book which became known in the police department and elsewhere as the ‘black book.’” Not so, says the city: “It is denied that the plaintiff’s photograph was one of those used in what became known in the press as the ‘black book.’”
On other matters, the city demonstrates accord with its aggrieved employee. To wit:
“It is admitted that Randy Gerringer, a former police officer, was hired. It is admitted that a tracking device was placed on a Greensboro Police Department car that was used by the plaintiff so that the plaintiff’s location could be monitored….
“It is admitted that Wray reported to the city manager, deputy city manager and city attorney that the evidence available to him indicated that plaintiff had some association with known criminals at least one of whom was associated with an international drug cartel, but that Wray had not been able to ascertain the extent of the plaintiff’s involvement….
“It is admitted that on June 17, 2005, Wray made a statement to the media that the plaintiff was subject to an ongoing multi-jurisdictional criminal investigation when it appears he knew that the statement was not true….
“It is admitted that the SID investigation was unable to substantiate any criminal conduct by the plaintiff. It is admitted that Wray and/or Brady assigned former officer Gerringer to surveil the plaintiff and that Gerringer was unable to substantiate criminal conduct by the plaintiff….
“It is admitted that on June 5, 2005, defendant Wray put the plaintiff on leave.”
With dozens of black police officers having discrimination complaints on file with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the city has steadfastly denied any part in racial discrimination, which might buttress the claims of future litigants.
“It is admitted that plaintiff was originally hired with the rank of Police I and had risen to the rank of lieutenant,” the city says of Hinson. “It is admitted that the plaintiff has not received any promotions, awards or commendations since 2001, but it is denied that he has been subjected to racial discrimination, and it is denied that any false statements have been the cause of his lack of promotions.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.