An extraordinary story is developing in Henderson County where a superior court judge heard arguments Monday on whether District Attorney Greg Newman should be removed from office, primarily over his handling of sexual assault cases. Newman is the elected district attorney for Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties.
A number of victims have come forward in recent months to complain that Newman failed to adequately prosecute their cases. In February several filed a petition with the superior court seeking his removal from office. The complaints have included a 2015 child rape case in which a defendant was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor assault on a female charge, which does not require the defendant to be on the sex offender registry, and during which Newman lied to the court about having informed the victim of the plea bargain; a rape case in which a defendant was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of assault on a female; a case of a Brevard College student who said Newman refused to bring charges against two men the college expelled for assaulting her; and
Newman was suspended by the N.C. State Bar for three years in November 2020 for lying to the court in the 2015 child rape case. His suspension was stayed for three years as long as he complies with a number of conditions, largely consistent with those lawyers are expected to comply with anyway. Newman was previously reprimanded by the state bar in May 2019 after he agreed to a motion for appropriate relief as the district attorney on a case where he had originally represented the defendant in 2007 when he was in private practice.
Newman is also facing a second removal complaint filed by a disbarred Brevard attorney who claims he harassed her for years following a public statement she made accusing the prosecutor’s office of failing to act on elder abuse cases.
North Carolina General Statute § 7A-66 creates a process for removal of a district attorney under specific circumstances. Successful use of the statute is extremely rare, as are hearings on removal. Complaints under the statute are somewhat common, but typically get dismissed for lack of probable cause. In this case, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin found probable cause to allow the proceeding to move forward on April 1 and he appointed prominent Charlotte lawyer James Cooney III as independent counsel to present the case against Newman.
Removal under 7A-66 has happened three times before. In 1995 New Hanover County District Attorney Jerry Spivey was removed after he was overheard at a bar using racial epithets. His removal was upheld by the North Carolina Supreme Court In re Spivey, 480 SE 2d 693, 345 NC 404 (1997). In 2007 Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong was removed after being disbarred over his mishandling of the Duke lacrosse case. He announced his intention to resign, but removal was used to terminate his term in office prior to the effective date of his resignation. In 2012 Durham County District Attorney Tracey Cline was removed after filing motions in superior court with a number of unsupported allegations against the sitting senior resident superior court judge. (Full disclosure: I was a junior prosecutor in the Durham DA’s office during that time.) Cline’s removal was upheld by the N.C. Court of Appeals In re Cline, 749 SE 2d 91, 230 NC App 11, (2013), rev. denied 753 SE 2d 781 (2014).
Also, kudos to Asheville Citizen-Times reporter Karen Chavez who has done a phenomenal job reporting on this complex story over the last six months or so.