When a former Stokes County elections board member pleaded guilty on Sept. 30 to charges he sexually abused three girls, he did so in a courtroom closed to the public. Though courtrooms by state law are supposed to be open to the public, a Stokes County judge closed the hearing to protect the privacy of the three alleged victims, who are all under the age of 13, according to a transcript.
The decision by Judge Angela Puckett of Stokes Superior Court to close the hearing raises questions about transparency in the court system, said Al Tompkins, a senior instructor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit journalism school and research organization.
"I would say that any reasonable person would understand the tendency toward protecting the victim and more especially because the victim is a minor," Tompkins said Thursday. "It's a reasonable concern. However, our trust in the court system is partly premised on the openness of the system, and when the system shuts down, we have reasons not to understand why the courts do what they do."
According to court documents, Harold Lester Mabe Jr., 63, of King, entered guilty pleas in Stokes Superior Court on Sept. 30 to 14 counts of statutory sex offense with a child. As part of the plea arrangement, Puckett of Stokes Superior Court consolidated the charges into one and sentenced him to a mandatory minimum of 25 years and a maximum of 35 years in prison. He also has to register as a sex offender and be on satellite-based monitoring for the rest of his life.
The plea arrangement also required Stokes County prosecutors to offer Mabe's wife, Jacqueline Walters Mabe, an offer to plead guilty to a reduced charge of obstruction of justice. She is currently charged with accessory after the fact and is accused of destroying evidence against her husband. The plea arrangement with Harold Mabe does not require his wife to accept the plea offer.
Quentin Harris, a prosecutor in the case who requested that the hearing be closed, declined to comment Wednesday, saying that it is the Stokes County District Attorney's Office's policy not to have prosecutors talk to news media about criminal cases. Ricky Bowman, the elected district attorney for Stokes County, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Indictments said Mabe illegally engaged in sexual acts with three girls at different periods between 2013 and 2020. The girls were as young as 7 and as old as 13 when Mabe sexually abused them, the indictments said.
No other information about the evidence against Mabe has been publicly released. A transcript of the closed part of the Sept. 30 hearing is not available, and two search warrants in the case are sealed.
Harris told Puckett on Sept. 30 that the hearing should be closed to protect the privacy of the victims and their families.
Harris said he would keep his summary of evidence, which is required for the acceptance of any guilty plea, brief. But he also said he would provide details about what sexual acts Mabe forced the three girls to perform and that the parents of the victims would be hearing these details for the first time.
"They are very sensitive as to what gets out in the community about what has happened to their family," Harris said. "They've already — it's already been in the media. It's already been reported from here to New York. They request that the public not be allowed in the courtroom to protect their privacy and to keep them safer."
The Winston-Salem Journal typically does not identify the alleged victims of sexual abuse or assault. Indictments in the case do not identify the victims by name or gender and only refer to them through initials.
Julie Boyer, attorney for Mabe, did not object. Boyer has declined to comment on the decision to close the hearing.
Abigail Perdue, a law professor at Wake Forest University, said most state court proceedings are open to the public but there is no absolute right. A judge can close a proceeding if the judge determines that making the hearing public would harm some overriding interest, there is no less restrictive alternative and the closing is "narrowly tailored to protect the interest." The judge has to make findings of fact to support the decision, Perdue said in a statement.
A written order that would have findings of fact has not been filed in Mabe's court file, and it was unclear whether Puckett will issue such a written order.
Puckett, according to the transcript, granted Harris' motion, closing the hearing for the presentation of evidence and the entry of the plea but opening the hearing back up for sentencing. She noted that there was an overriding governmental interest in protecting the witnesses and that Mabe, through his attorney, did not object. She also found that "there are no less restrictive means possible."
Because the hearing was closed, a transcript of what happened is not publicly available.
Tompkins of Poynter said the major issue is not that Puckett closed the hearing but that there was no effort to see if the hearing could remain open to the public.
"The answer to our discomfort to openness can't just be to close things," he said.
Puckett could have redacted the names of the victims from any transcript or urged everyone not to use the victims' names in open court. No reporters attended the open part of the hearing, so no one was there to object. Tompkins said that's why it's important for journalists to cover such hearings.
"Part of our function is to raise questions of openness," he said.
Sign up for our Crime & Courts newsletter
Get the latest in local public safety news with this weekly email.