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Council of State meets to discuss oversight powers of governor's ability to issue or extend COVID-19 restrictions

The contentious debate over whether Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper should have to get Council of State approval before issuing and extending emergency executive orders resumes today.

The Council, which is comprised of six Republicans and four Democrats, is scheduled to hold its monthly meeting at 9 a.m.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell has invited the members to meet in his office, rather than remotely. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall is expected to attend remotely, according to a spokeswoman.

All six GOP council members have said they want to fully reopen the state’s businesses sooner than Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, have planned.

Cooper extended Phase Two restrictions to July 17 after the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continued to increase. As of noon Monday, those totals were at 74,529 cases, 1,398 deaths and 982 hospitalizations.

It’s not clear whether the governor requires the approval of the Council on executive orders, particularly during a declared emergency. Cooper has said his executive orders adhere to state law.

In March, Folwell tested positive for COVID-19 and spent five days at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Two employees in the his office also tested positive for the virus in late March.

“I felt strongly that we all need to get together and have an open and transparent discussion of the issues facing our state,” Folwell said in a statement. “The meeting should not be adjourned until all Council of State questions and concerns on behalf of North Carolinians are addressed.”

Folwell said “the public is demanding a forum to discuss the economic impact that COVID-19 has had on our areas of responsibility, and what we’re going to do to flatten the economic curve.”

“When people are immobile, they can’t move and therefore can’t consume. This lack of consumption will mean cities and counties across the state are going to see a negative, multi-year impact on their (sales tax) revenue.”

In contrast, the latest Elon University Poll, conducted June 24-25 and released Thursday, found that 74% of 1,410 respondents support the public-health measure ordered by Cooper.

About 51% of respondents gave Cooper a letter grade of “A” or “B” for his administration’s handling of the pandemic.

Senate Bill 105

Senate Bill 105 is perhaps the most contentious of the eight vetoed bills.

It would require the governor to gain approval from at least six Council members to create or extend an executive order.

Several Democratic legislators have called the Council of State concurrence requirement “a poison pill.”

Cooper said in addressing his veto of SB105 that “placing additional bureaucratic and administrative obligations on the declaration of a state of emergency is a substantial change in the law.”

Cooper said the bill would “frustrate executive branch officials’ ability to quickly and efficiently respond to such an emergency by requiring agreement from officials with limited involvement in managing the response, and would risk diverting focus from responding to such an emergency.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a council member who is running against Cooper in the 2020 general election, sued Cooper over the Council of State issue. Forest is requesting a temporary and permanent injunction on Cooper’s authority to issue emergency executive orders without council concurrence.

Two bills that Cooper vetoed — House Bill 258 (reopen amusement parks and arcades) and Senate Bill 599 (reopening skating rinks and bowling alleys) — also contain language that would have required Cooper to gain Council approval for emergency executive orders.

However, that language was removed from House Bill 806 (reopen fitness centers and gyms).

Veto override votes?

On Wednesday, the state House is scheduled to address six vetoed House bills and the two vetoed Senate bills.

That doesn’t mean that any of the override votes will occur, considering there were just three attempts of 14 Cooper vetoes in the 2019 session.

At full attendance, overriding the governor’s veto would require at least 72 votes in the House and at least 30 votes in the Senate. The breakdown is 65-55 Republican in the House and 29-21 Republican in the Senate.

Two vetoed bills passed the legislature with enough votes to override if Democrats vote the same way.

The votes on House Bill 652 (concealed weapons on church campus that also operates a school) were House 77-38 and Senate 33-14.

The votes on House Bill 806 (reopen fitness centers and gyms) were House 75-31 and Senate 33-13. Some Democrat support for HB806 came from Republicans agreeing to remove Council approval language from the bill.

The rest of the bills, including SB105, cleared the legislature with enough House Democratic support to sustain Cooper’s veto.

A violent attack killed Ella Crawley more than a month ago. Investigators will canvass Winston-Salem neighborhoods for answers.

Detectives and community members will canvass the neighborhoods near the 300 block of W. Northwest Boulevard in an effort to find out who killed Ella Lorine Crawley in late May.

Crawley, 50, was found May 23 near a walking path in Gateway Commons Park in the Aster Park area off Northwest Boulevard. She had been severely beaten and died May 24 from her injuries. Winston-Salem police said a preliminary autopsy showed that she died from blunt-force injuries and strangulation. In a news release Monday, police said Crawley was found partially clothed and that investigators are trying to determine if she was sexually assaulted.

Authorities from multiple law-enforcement agencies and community members plan to meet at 9 a.m. today at Union Baptist Church, 1200 North Trade St., for what police call a Violent Crimes Task Force Response. After the meeting, the response team will go door-to-door in the neighborhoods near the 300 block of West Northwest Boulevard.

Police said Crawley, who was homeless, was often in the area where she was found and likely encountered whoever attacked her near or on Northwest Boulevard. She was found at 7:02 a.m. May 23 and police think the attack happened shortly before she was found, according to the news release. Crawley’s relatives have said she had a history of mental illness.

One of her sisters, Melissa Crawley, and two local activists said Winston-Salem police should be doing more to get justice for a black homeless woman who was murdered. Miranda Jones and Ikulture Chandler helped organize an event in late May, “Black Ops: Rebellion of Black Women,” that drew 200 people. The event honored Crawley and another black woman, Jericka McGee, 21, who was shot to death. Two people have been arrested and charged in McGee’s death.

Jones said she’s not convinced that police will get any new leads from canvassing communities where black people have been traumatized by their interactions with police and are not inclined to trust the police.

She called it “disgraceful” if this is all the police have to offer a black woman who was murdered and mentally ill.

“It seems like a bit of a stunt and for us, that’s not good enough,” she said.

Capt. Steve Tollie of the Winston-Salem Police Department said police detectives have conducted two previous canvasses in the neighborhood, including one on the morning Crawley was found. A second, larger one was conducted a few days later, he said.

“As is evident by the fact that this investigation remains unsolved, detectives have yet to develop a lead that will bring this investigation to a successful conclusion,” he said. “The purpose in tomorrow’s (canvass) is yet another effort to reach out to members of the community where this occurred ... in hopes that someone with information may come forward.”

Chandler said she and Jones have sent numerous emails to police Chief Catrina Thompson and the lead detective. Chandler, who is related to McGee, said it doesn’t seem as enough has been done to get justice for Crawley.

“They could have been going door to door,” she said. “They didn’t have to wait until a month and a half later because her death was not a priority. ... It just doesn’t seem fair to me. It has to do with class. It has to do with the fact that she was a homeless woman.”

Tollie said he doesn’t understand “how someone can criticize the efforts that we will make tomorrow to develop additional leads in this investigation.”

“While it is true that this effort may fail, I would rather make the effort and fail than to miss a potential opportunity to develop a new lead in the investigation,” he said in an email.

Melissa Crawley, Crawley’s sister, said she wants the community to know that her sister’s killer has not been caught. A canvass, she said, should have been done sooner. She had been in communication with the lead detective, but the detective suddenly stopped returning her calls, she said.

Melissa Crawley said she traveled from Tennessee, where she lives, to Winston-Salem and talked to people who lived in the area where her sister was found. She said her sister’s shoes and bag were found directly across the street from where she was found.

Her sister struggled with mental illness but had seemed to be doing okay, Melissa Crawley said.

She had lived in an apartment for years but stopped taking her medication. Melissa Crawley and one of her brothers, Bobby Ellison, both said after she stopped taking her medication, Ella Crawley’s life started going downhill.

Melissa Crawley said one of her sisters lived in Winston-Salem and did everything she could to make sure that Crawley was okay, including taking her places she needed to go. An elderly man, who had been her neighbor, also helped Crawley.

Chandler said more should have been done.

“She’s important. She matters,” she said. “This is the first time in a whole month that they had a whole plan.”

Anyone who has information is asked to contact the Winston-Salem Police Department at (336) 773-7000 or Crime Stoppers at (336) 727-2800. Crime Stoppers may also be reached on Facebook via the “Crime Stoppers of Winston-Salem Forsyth County” page.

Governor vetoes Senate bill that would limit public records in death investigations

A state Senate bill containing controversial language involving death investigations records was vetoed Monday by Gov. Roy Cooper.

Earlier Monday, the House Rules and Operations committee agreed to remove the language if Cooper agreed to let Senate Bill 168 become law.

SB168 contains a provision that would make private “all information and records provided by a city, county or other public entity to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, or its agents, concerning a death investigation ...”

The bill foremost focuses on block grant funding for certain N.C. Department of Health and Human Services initiatives.

SB168 cleared the Senate at 1:01 a.m. June 26. Cooper had 10 days — until Monday — to sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

Cooper said in his veto statement the provision “could have the unintended consequence of limiting transparency in death investigations.”

“While I believe neither the Department of Health and Human Services which proposed it, nor the General Assembly which unanimously passed it, had any ill intent, the concerns that have since been raised make it clear this provision should not become law.”

Critics say the bill would let police get away with violence.

Level of trust

It is not clear how Cooper’s veto affects the actions taken by the House Rules committee.

Cooper said during his June 30 press conference that SB168 contains “a concerning provision in there about public records. I am concerned about it. I think most people don’t want to have this provision, and I think we’ll figure out a way to fix it.”

Following Cooper’s press conference, Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, and Senate Rules chairman, sent a letter to Cooper expressing a willingness to remove the language, the News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

The House Rules committee removed and replaced language in a separate bill, Senate Bill 232, to repeal the section of SB168 that deals with death investigation records. The revamped SB232 has been placed on the House floor calendar for its 4 p.m. Tuesday session.

House Majority leader John Bell, R-Wayne, told the Rules committee that “there was a lot of issues surrounding” the death investigation language.

“In order to avoid those issues, we are deleting that information,” Bell said.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Rules chairman, said the death investigation records language has produced “great consternation.”

Given the veto language, Cooper is “taking out an insurance policy in case lawmakers can’t reach agreement on ditching the disputed provision,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.

Kokai said it is possible that the agreement between Cooper and Republican legislative leaders may contain the veto, a successful veto override and then passage of SB232.

“If lawmakers were not expecting the veto, then I suspect they are regrouping now to decide how they want to move forward,” Kokai said. “It might be easier to come up with a new bill than to try to pass SB232 and override the veto.

Bill draws protests

The Triad Abolition Project of Winston-Salem is circulating a Care2 petition online and on Twitter that calls for Cooper’s veto of SB168. As of Monday night, it had gained 8,756 signatures toward a goal of 10,000.

“We believe SB168 not only obfuscates law enforcement involvement in the deaths of those they have in custody, but it also shields and protects law enforcement from being held accountable for deaths of civilians who are incarcerated, arrested and detained,” according to the petition.

The Triad Abolition Project cited the investigation into the death of John Neville, who was in Forsyth County Jail shortly before his death in December.

The State Bureau of Investigation has been investigating Neville’s death for seven months, yet the county sheriff’s office had not publicly acknowledged Neville’s passing until asked about it by the Journal on June 26.

The sheriff’s office has said Neville died of a “medical emergency.”

However, attorney Chris Clifton, who represents Neville’s estate, told the Journal in a June 26 statement that he and his clients are waiting to see if criminal charges will be brought at the end of the SBI’s investigation.

Kokai said that “from a purely political perspective, the veto also gives the governor a chance to placate the protesters who’ve been congregating outside his mansion.”

He went missing decades ago. DNA helped police ID the body of Dwight Michael Gordon last month.

Investigators used DNA evidence to identify the remains of a Winston-Salem man who was reported missing nearly 34 years ago, authorities said Monday.

On July 24, 1986, Dwight Michael Gordon’s family reported him missing to the Winston-Salem Police Department, police said in a statement. Gordon was 37 and had been living on Washington Avenue.

Investigators determined that Gordon was last seen by his family about two years before the disappearance was reported, police said.

On Oct. 21, 1984, the Chilton County Sheriff’s Office in Alabama found the body of an unidentified white man on County Road 459, police said.

The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences determined that the man’s cause of death was due to multiple blunt force injuries to his head, and the man’s death was ruled a homicide.

Despite efforts by authorities in Alabama, the victim’s identity remained unknown.

In 1986, investigators with the Chilton County Sheriff’s Office arrested James Cleckler, who was 32 at the time. Cleckler pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Gordon’s death in 1987 and was sentenced to life in prison.

However, Clecker has been released for serving his time under structured for Alabama sentencing guidelines at the time, Winston-Salem police said.

In 2016, the unidentified male victim found in Alabama was exhumed for DNA testing. The University of North Texas Health Science Center in Ft. Worth, Texas, entered his DNA into the national database, known as the Combined DNA Index System.

In February 2019, Winston-Salem police investigators were contacted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, who believed the remains of a different unidentified man might be Gordon.

Officials with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, with the help of the Myrtle Beach Police, obtained a DNA sample from Gordon’s sister, who lived in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The results of that DNA comparison revealed that the unidentified male victim in Tennessee was not Gordon. However, the link to the unidentified male in the Chilton County Alabama homicide case then came to light.

In September, 2019, Winston-Salem police detectives began working with Chilton County Sheriff John Shearon and federal investigators.

Local detectives then identified a living brother of Gordon and collected a DNA sample from him.

On June 23, authorities learned from federal investigators that the DNA samples obtained from Gordon’s sister and brother confirmed Gordon’s identity.

This investigation spanned three decades. Winston Salem police ask city residents with loved ones who are still missing to not lose hope.

Anyone with information regarding this case can call Winston-Salem police at 336-773-7700 or Crime Stoppers at 336-727-2800, Crime Stoppers of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County is also on Facebook.