NC Court of Appeals sides with media seeking public records on jail detainee’s death

The Forsyth County District Attorney didn’t follow court rules when he sought to prevent a state agency from giving a news organization documents about a jail detainee’s death, a state Court of Appeals opinion says.

The opinion issued Tuesday said District Attorney Jim O’Neill “failed to follow the requirements of the Rules of Civil Procedure in filing its Objection and Request for Temporary Protective Order.”

O’Neill in January 2021 asked the Forsyth Superior Court for a temporary restraining order to prevent the state Department of Health and Human Services from giving documents to The News & Observer relating to the death of John Neville.

Neville died in December 2019, three days after jail deputies hog-tied him and held him on his stomach, The News & Observer reported.

The Superior Court initially granted the restraining order. A coalition of media companies asked the Superior Court to dismiss it. The Superior Court dissolved the protective order in February 2021. O’Neill appealed. The state Attorney General’s office handled the appeal.

When O’Neill first asked for the restraining order, he didn’t notify The News & Observer. No member of the media coalition was named as a party or was notified to appear in court, the Appeals Court opinion said. DHHS was told about the objection but did not get a summons and was not named as a party.  “In fact, the Record is devoid of any summons commencing the matter whatsoever,” the opinion said.

This amounted to a failure to follow the Rules of Civil Procedure.

The Appeals Court did not decide whether the documents are public records.

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