Attorney facing censure praised by NAACP, clergy
Graham Holt accused of violating gag order on Zared Jones videos
In a Sept. 5 press conference at the International Civil Rights Museum, Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP, said, “We come here today to stand with one who has stood for many people in our community, brother Graham Holt, a courageous attorney who stands where others would not dare to stand.”
Holt, Spearman said, “is being bought under attack by the city council and the legal entities here in the city of Greensboro for something that he has done and is doing on behalf of the African-American community.”
One of the things that Holt has done is to serve as attorney for Zared Jones, who alleges that he and his friends were racially targeted, brutalized and falsely arrested by Greensboro Police officers in 2016.
Holt is the Greensboro attorney representing the family of Marcus Smith in their federal civil rights lawsuit. In August 2017, almost a year before Smith’s death after being hogtied by GPD officers, Holt filed a complaint against the GPD in the Jones case.
Those charges stemmed from a Sept. 2016 encounter between Jones, three of his friends, and GPD officers that began when Jones complained to Cpl. Korey Johnson of being assaulted by a bouncer at a McGee street bar. While Cpl. Johnson and Jones were talking, Sgt. Steven Flowers and officer Samuel Alvarez approached. The complaint alleges that the new arrivals escalated the situation into a struggle between officer Alvarez and Jones’ friend Aaron Garrett that ended with Garrett being slammed against a car and tased.
A 2017 N.C. Policy Watch article by Joe Killian reported that this was the second time Alvarez was accused of racial profiling and brutality.
In May of that year, all charges against Zared Jones were dropped.
In January 2018, Guilford County Superior Court Judge Susan Bray ruled that Graham Holt and Zared Jones could view GPD body camera videos of the incident, but only if they signed a pledge of confidentiality, in which they agreed 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.”
Soon afterward, additional petitions were granted to members of the Greensboro City Council, including the mayor, the city manager, legal counsel, the police community review board and the chief of police, allowing them to view and discuss the footage amongst themselves. The mayor and council also received gag orders that prohibited them from discussing the footage with outside parties.
The city appealed the gag order, and no city council members viewed the video that they were allowed to see but not discuss. The state Court of Appeals upheld Bray’s 2018 gag order earlier this summer.
On Aug. 9, Holt sent an email with the subject line “CONFIDENTIAL Zared Jones” to the mayor and city council via the “E-mail City Council” portal on the City of Greensboro website.
In it, he wrote, “While I no longer represent Zared Jones, Clifton Ruffin, Aaron Garrett and Alfonso Thomas, I urge you to watch the body-worn camera footage of their unlawful arrests.”
His email acknowledged that the gag order “prevents disclosure or discussion with third parties about the body-worn camera footage,” but alleged that discussing it with the city council was not a violation of it, as they had also been granted permission to view it and were not third parties.
The email stated that, while Holt had been allowed to view videos of the incident on McGee street, videos of an encounter earlier that evening between the men and several of the same officers had been erased. He also said that the footage he was allowed to view showed that Alvarez and Flowers had “plotted to arrest the young men long before the men had done anything but walk downtown.”
He described the videos as showing that the altercation began after Sgt. Flowers ordered the men to leave the vicinity of the McGee Street bar where Jones had been ejected. But it also showed, he wrote, that Jones had been instructed to stay where he was by Cpl. Korey Johnson, who had then taken Jones’ ID and stepped into the bar to talk to the bouncer. While Jones was explaining this, Holt wrote, Flowers “grabs Zared’s arm and slams a handcuff down on Zared’s wrist.”
The entire email can be read here.
On Aug. 27, Bray initiated disciplinary proceedings against Holt for allegedly violating the gag order. In her motion, she wrote that Holt, “may have acted with impropriety calculated to bring contempt upon the administration of justice.”
On Sept. 30, Holt will appear before Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour. Attorney Walter Kirk Burton will act as the prosecutor. Attorneys Kearns Davis and Don D. Carter and former Chief District Court Judge Wendy M. Enochs will review the case and make recommendations to Judge Baddour.
Holt was traveling when the press conference was held Thursday at the Civil Rights Museum, but retired civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts Jr. described his friend Holt as “being illegally and wrongly singled out” for his efforts to expose alleged GPD malfeasance.
Another speaker in defense of Holt was Rev. Cardes H. Brown, president of the Greensboro NAACP and religious chairperson of the state NAACP, who called the censure “an egregious act to try discredit him.”
“If we allow the city to just continue to roll on, crush up and spit out people like Graham, we might as well not call ourselves a city,” said Rev. Wesley Morris, pastor of Faith Community Church.
Rev. Nelson Johnson, executive director of the Beloved Community Center and organizer of the press conference, stated the case was not really about Holt violating a court order, but “the cover-up of police abuse of power.” He called the proceedings against Holt a calculated attempt “at stopping the investigation of that process in its tracks.”
Both Johnson and Pitts decried the “hypocrisy” of Holt, and not the Greensboro City Council, being held accountable for information that “the City of Greensboro chose to release.” Both alleged that city attorney Chuck Watts had informed Judge Bray of Holt’s email before it was ever released by the city but had made no motion to have it sealed by the judge.
Dr. Daran Mitchell, pastor of AME Zion and president of the Pulpit Forum of Greensboro, alleged that the proceedings against Holt are part of an ongoing pattern and practice of “coverups smearing over these issues, especially when it comes to police misconduct.”
After the Thursday meeting, I asked Lewis Pitts about Holt’s decision to send his email through the city portal. At that site, it states, “Any e-mail sent is subject to the public records law and will be made available to the media.”
“Saying its subject to public records laws is not the same thing as saying it’s automatically a public document,” Pitts replied. “There’s plenty of basis to have that email withheld and put under seal because it contained information under a gag order by Judge Bray. In fact, attorney Holt saw it that way, that’s why he marked it confidential in the subject line, and in the body of the email, said that he was writing them because both they and him are not third parties, but are both covered by the gag order.”
He also criticized Judge Bray.
“Nobody presented evidence, nobody made a legal argument, so it’s highly improper for a judge to issue a ruling on a matter which is in contest. That shows how much she lost objectivity and stepped outside her role, and began to proceed in a vindictive manner against attorney Holt by making the allegations that she did. The main eye on the prize here is the police misconduct and what he reports, not the sideshow of attacking Graham.”
By “eye on the prize,” he meant the descriptions contained in Holt’s email.
“He says you will see grossly racially-motivated violence by police officers, who then bring false charges against their victims, which means the officers committed perjury.”
Pitts also said that Holt had described these same things, in almost identical words, in a letter to city council a year ago.
“He was also under the gag order then, but nothing happened. I think it’s only happening now because he’s part of a major civil rights lawsuit against the city over the death of Marcus Smith. When he wrote the same things last month that he’d written a year ago, the city attorney consulted with the judge and asked if the email should be released. They didn’t make a motion to seal it and it went out. He was set up.”
Holt gave YES! Weekly the following statement on Friday:
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I sent this email without worry about it being distributed in any manner because it was subject to a gag order when I sent it. So, I was confident that would be an OK to do. And I sent it to another party, the city council, who also had permission to watch the video, so they weren’t going to learn anything they couldn’t learn on their own.”