RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – The North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled that Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill had no right to ask a judge to seal records about how a Greensboro man died in the Forsyth County Jail.
WGHP, The News & Observer in Raleigh and several other media outlets had filed public records requests in 2020 seeking information about how John Neville, 56, died in 2019 after collapsing while incarcerated at the jail. The State Bureau of Investigation charged six people in the death, but ultimately a grand jury declined to indict five former members of the detention staff and indicted only Michelle Heughins, a nurse who had worked at the jail.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services had agreed to supply the records to the news outlets, but O’Neill last year quietly asked Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David Hall to seal those documents.
On Feb. 4, 2021, attorney Michael J. Tadych of Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych filed suit on behalf of WGHP, The News & Observer, WRAL-TV, WXII-TV, WUNC-FM, The Winston-Salem Journal and the News & Record to argue that the media was not informed about the filed protective order and that the district attorney had no right to seek to seal the records.
“We agree with the media coalition,” Court of Appeals Judge John Arrowood wrote in a unanimous opinion from a 3-judge panel. “Because the District Attorney failed to follow the requirements of the Rules of Civil Procedure in filing its Objection and Request for Temporary Protective Order, and because no authority exists to provide the trial court jurisdiction over the relief sought by the District Attorney, we dismiss this appeal.”
O’Neill had claimed, the court wrote, “that ‘the records at issue contain the complete investigative file of’ the SBI, including ‘investigative notes, interviews, . . . personnel information[,] . . . Neville’s medical records, the Forsyth County Detention Center internal investigation and report, and related officer statements[.]’ The District Attorney also claimed that the records included many items that were ‘not otherwise subject to public disclosure while criminal cases involving them are still pending’ and that they “contain[ed] information[ ] the release of which would violate HIPAA/HITECH and numerous statutes.’”
Neville was in the jail on a misdemeanor charge on Dec. 2, 2019, when he had a medical emergency. Two days later, his family unplugged life support at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem.
Body-camera footage had showed that Neville had a seizure and told jail employees that he “couldn’t breathe” and asked for help. The video also showed Heughins repeatedly trying to calm Neville as she took his blood pressure.
She was heard on camera saying of the jail employees, “They are just holding you down while we take your blood pressure. You just had a seizure. They’re just making sure you don’t hurt yourself.”
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office in July 2020 reported that Neville had suffocated while being detained by those five detention officers. They and Heughins were arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Neville’s family was upset with the decision by the grand jury, and the circumstances surrounding his death sparked a month of protests in the city.
Heughins is set to make her next court appearance on May 22.