A federal grand jury investigation examining the conduct of former Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene is underway, and at least six sheriff’s deputies, one local police chief, and the chairman of the county Board of Commissioners have been called to testify. 

The subpoenas indicate that what started as an investigation into a recorded phone call in which Greene said he wanted to fire Black deputies seems to have ballooned into something much bigger.

A joint investigation from The Assembly and the Border Belt Independent found that while the full extent of the investigation isn’t yet clear, some of the lines of inquiry include claims that Greene had sex on duty with a subordinate, intimidated county commissioners, and sought to have perceived political enemies criminally charged.

Clouds Over Columbus County

Reporting by The Assembly and the Border Belt Independent reveals that dozens of people have been subpoenaed in a wide-ranging federal investigation into abuses of power at the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office.

Corruption prosecutions are most often brought by federal offices, rather than state or local, because there is more political distance between the accused and those seeking to bring them to account, said Kristine Artello, an attorney and associate professor of criminal justice at Fisher College. But corruption prosecutions have dropped dramatically in recent decades.

An exception of interest to Courts readers: Michael F. Easley Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, whose father faced his own corruption investigations as governor.

His cases have included the indictment of a current Wayne County sheriff’s deputy and a former one in August on charges related to alleged bid rigging and drug trafficking, as well as embezzlement in Spring Lake, bribery at Rivers Federal Correctional Institution, and embezzlement at Fort Liberty.

It will likely be some time before we see what the Columbus probe turns up.

The wall of sheriff portraits inside the office’s lobby has yet to be updated. (Photo by Johanna F. Still)

The Brief

Last week, voting rights advocates were in federal court in Durham to urge a judge to block a state law that is being used to punish convicted felons who cast ballots while still on parole or probation.

The Strict Liability Voter Law was originally passed in 1877 to keep felons from voting. But Black men bore the brunt of the law because they constituted 88 percent of all incarcerated men. Then, in 1899, white Democrats re-enacted the strict liability law, along with literacy tests and poll taxes, all designed to prohibit Black people from voting. The State Elections Board is charged with enforcing the law, which has undergone a number of changes over the years. 

The voting rights groups Action NC and the A. Philip Randolph Institute sued the State Board of Elections in September 2020, alleging that the law still discriminates against Black voters and unfairly penalizes people who had no intention of breaking the law. State elections officials maintain that the law is neither vague nor racist, and say it simply makes clear that convicted felons have to serve their full sentence before regaining their right to vote. 

No one disputes that the intent of the law was racist when state legislators first approved and then re-enacted in 1899 after a constitutional convention to address the “threat” of “negro domination.” North Carolina elected leaders of the era had passed a number of laws designed to keep Black people from the ballot box, including a literacy test and poll taxes. 

The question is whether the law is still racist in practice. Its critics contend it is, and point to statistics as proof. For example, a 2016 state elections board audit showed that out of 441 people with felony convictions suspected of illegal voting, 68 percent were Black. Between 2015 and 2022, 64 percent of people investigated for violating the law were Black. 

Black people make up 22 percent of the state’s population. 

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also argued that the language is unnecessarily vague and provides little guidance for people who want to vote but don’t want to run afoul of law. State elections officials maintain the law is clear: a person convicted of a felony can’t vote if they haven’t completed probation or parole. 

The law will change in January no matter what, because state elections officials recommended it and state legislators agreed to it and people who unintentionally violate the law won’t be prosecuted going forward. But voting rights advocates want the court to rule that it should also apply retroactively, so that prosecutors won’t charge people in past elections. 

Magistrate Judge Joe Webster did not issue a decision after the November 14 hearing or say exactly when he would rule. 

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In The Interest Of The Child

Alexis Wynn with her children. (Photo by Harrison Brink)

When Durham County social services removed Alexis Wynn’s two sons, no one had accused her of hurting them. Instead, they leveled a charge of “neglect” against her, a term that experts say is often synonymous with poverty. 

Wynn had left the home she shared with the boys’ father, whom court records indicate was jailed following charges of domestic violence, and ended up in a domestic violence shelter. The Durham County Department of Social Services obtained legal custody of Prince and Zion after alleging that Alexis “was exposing her children to an injurious environment” at the shelter. 

Her sons were among the 90 children who entered social service custody in Durham in the 2019–2020 fiscal year, and the 4,600 taken into care throughout the state, according to a database maintained by the University of North Carolina’s Jordan Institute for Families. 

About 11,000 North Carolina children, including 285 in Durham County, were in custody as of the end of September. On average, they’ll be in the state’s care for one to two years—and even longer in Durham, which maintains custody for an average of 875 days, the second-longest timeframe in the state. 

And despite federal and state laws requiring “reasonable efforts” to reunify families, most will never go home. Alexis Wynn’s sons were almost among them.

In the first of a three-part investigation by The Assembly and WBTV, we look at this aspect of the child welfare system. Subsequent installments will explore other cases where a parent spent years fighting to regain custody of their children.

The Poverty Trap

When a Durham mother fled an abusive partner, the county took her children away. In the first of a three-part series, The Assembly and WBTV investigate a state child welfare system that wields enormous power with little accountability.

“I was trying to get help to protect me and my children,” Wynn said in an interview earlier this month. “You’re supposed to help families, but instead, you’re tearing them apart. You’re destroying them.”

Have any suggestions for improving this newsletter or stories we should look into? Email us at courts@theassemblync.com.

Up and Atom?

Duke is leaning on advanced but unproven nuclear technology to decarbonize. Environmentalists say that will delay climate goals.

Can Charlotte Re-Sort Itself?

One year ago, the city passed a landmark zoning reform aimed at reversing a century of segregation. The battle still rages.

Conclusion, But No Closure

A Davidson County murder case drew international media coverage, but the conclusion brought little closure.

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