Samantha White, of Cumberland County, survived a sexual assault as a teenager in Johnston County. She later testified against her attacker – her church pastor – resulting in his conviction and imprisonment. Melissa Sue Gerrits/The Fayetteville Observer

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In 2019, Carolina Public Press offered high-interest, high-impact, ground-breaking stories on issues affecting people across North Carolina.

CPP’s coverage this year pointed the way to new legislation, led to state and federal investigations of potentially criminal misconduct by government officials, kept a bright light shining on processes that tend to disappear when no one is watching.

These stories asked tough questions about how to improve on failing policies, explained complicated policy debates and drew attention to everyday challenges people in North Carolina face.

This article looks back at the top 10 CPP stories of 2019.

1. Seeking conviction

CPP analyzed 4 1/2 years of court data from every county to find that less than 1 in 4 defendants charged with sexual assault were convicted during that time window of the charge or a lesser sexual assault-related charge. And in some counties, CPP found, the numbers were much lower.

Starting from this data analysis, the Seeking Conviction project examined every aspect of what’s been happening with sexual assault cases in North Carolina, including victim blaming juries, unique challenges and solutions in some jurisdictions, the benefits of more specialized police and prosecutor training, the shortage and disorganized placement of sexual assault nurse examiners and legal precedents that have made many rapes tough to prosecute.

The four-day collaborative series of articles from CPP and its news media partners began Seeking Conviction, along with early listening sessions and forum panels in each part of the state. But coverage continued, expanding on additional issues, such as the many North Carolina sexual assault cases that remain unresolved long after suspects have been charged.

That extended coverage also focused on the on-again-off-again legal process as legal reforms to correct some of those troubling precedents advanced through the General Assembly. In previous sessions, measures dealing with withdrawal of consent and sex while incapacitated by alcohol or drugs couldn’t survive the committee process. In the last week of October, both houses of the legislature unanimously passed a slate of reforms, later signed by the governor.

Seeking Conviction wasn’t just a major investigative series of stories about an urgent statewide issue. It was also a revolutionary collaboration between 11 news organizations, led by CPP. Every major article in the series had multiple writers from multiple print, online, television and radio organizations, with stories from across the state woven together to create a unified web of voices and narratives.

CPP’s partners included The Fayetteville Observer, The Herald-Sun, Hickory Daily Record, The News & Observer, News & Record, North Carolina Health News, Winston-Salem Journal, WLOS, WRAL and WUNC.

The project is now being held up nationally as a model for successful collaboration. In a post for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair University, wrote, “You have to read the series to understand the kind of incredible journalism they produced.” At BuzzFeednews.com, Joshua Stearns pointed to the series in a column on how nonprofit journalism is reshaping news.

Paul Crisp, 76, sits in the kitchen of his mobile home in Whittier. He has trouble making ends meet and benefits from groups like Living Waters in Swain County that provide hot food to the community. Matt Rose / Carolina Public Press

2. Faces of Hunger

Three reporters spent time at soup kitchens and food pantries in five rural regions across North Carolina, talking with people seeking help as well as with volunteers and administrators. Through intensive observation and listening to the stories of ordinary people, they crafted a series of reports that addressed food insecurity in its many forms across the state.

Photographers captured visual stories, portraying these individuals as they battled with food insecurity, whether their own or that of their neighbors – sometimes both.

Appearing in CPP between June and December, the Faces of Hunger in-depth reporting project found that hunger affects people in every region. The young are vulnerable, but so are older adults. Economic woes lead to food insecurity, but so do seasonal economies, lack of education and costly medical needs.

A sheriff’s squad car parked outside the Cherokee County Detention Center in Murphy. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

3. Cherokee County jail investigation

CPP began looking into multiple allegations about the Cherokee County Detention Center in late 2018. After the first few stories appeared, the State Bureau of Investigation also broadened its ongoing probe of concerns there. This reporting continued into 2019, with the state criminal probes still underway.

Reporting on the Cherokee jail in 2019 focused on the death of an inmate who had apparently swallowed an enormous amount of methamphetamine before arriving at the jail and later passed out in his cell. CPP found that the inmate’s flight to a hospital was delayed while officials tried to change his bond status.

Other incidents also continued receiving attention, including whether a dustup between two guards and an inmate was covered up until after the primary election in 2018 and whether some records may have been deleted from the sheriff’s database.

NC Rep. Cody Henson, R-Transylvania, hurries away from reporters attempting to interview him following his cyberstalking guilty plea in Brevard. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

4. Henson domestic violence case

NC Rep. Cody Henson, R-Transylvania, resigned this summer after accepting a plea deal on charge that he cyberstalked his ex-wife.

The story began months earlier when she sought an order of protection against him but faced pushback from local officials because of her husband’s political connections.

CPP covered each step of the case with many stories between February and August, including stories on repeated continuances of criminal charges against Henson. In one instance, his lawyer said he was needed in Raleigh, but the next day he failed to take part in a vote on domestic violence legislation.

Henson apparently planned to continue serving in office after his guilty plea and announced plans to do so. However, amid rising political pressure, he announced his intent to resign the next day.

Cherokee County Department of Social Services paid a contractor to shred a massive amount of documents in 2018, at the same time as a criminal investigation into unlawful child seizures. Photo illustration by Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

5. Cherokee County Department of Social Services investigation

As CPP investigated concerns about the jail in Cherokee County, lawyers representing families in a federal civil case against Cherokee County Department of Social Services contacted CPP. The problem of DSS unlawfully removing children from their homes without a judge’s order had already been reported on, but there was much more to this situation, with plenty for multiple CPP stories to examine about the local and state handling of the situation.

Records of meetings for the DSS board at a crucial time were missing. When they did turn up in part, they showed serious concerns about criminal misconduct. Meanwhile, CPP found a massive explosion of shredding services that DSS paid for at precisely the time a person of interest in the SBI’s ongoing criminal probe returned to work.

CPP also found that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services took over part of the troubled agency’s programs during much of 2018, but communication between the two agencies was limited. In one situation, DHHS found errors that resulted in the repayment of hundreds of thousands to the federal government, but that no one in Cherokee County seems to know anything about.

As CPP reported earlier in December, the district attorney met with the U.S. Attorney’s Office the same day the story about the shredding broke. Indications are that this is now a federal investigation.

West Henderson High School senior Vivian Rodriguez assists Roy Presley in voting in the March 2016, primary election at Mills River Elementary School in Mills River. Ari Sen / Carolina Public Press

6. Election integrity

Saying repeatedly that North Carolina’s election equipment and processes are secure from fraud and tampering does not make them secure. CPP’s stories have pointed to irregularities in the approval of touchscreen systems for use in the state’s 2020 elections.

Despite the strong warning of outside organizations, the state board narrowly voted to approve touchscreen systems that print out a barcode, making it difficult for voters to know whether their intent was recorded accurately.

More recently, it’s become clear that the company that made the machines pitched one type of system to the state even though it was already telling other states that system wouldn’t be available. This situation has led a competitor to leave North Carolina for now, while calling for the state to investigate whether election systems were improperly pitched to county election boards before they were certified.

As announced earlier in December, CPP is committed to continuing this coverage and is the recipient of a Report for America grant to focus on election integrity reporting.

7. SBI investigation of alleged lawyer sexual misconduct with clients

After a reader tip, CPP contacted the district attorney for Henderson and Transylvania counties about allegations of sexual misconduct involving two Transylvania County attorneys, including a county commissioner.

The DA described aspects of the allegations, one of which appeared to involve sexual assault, and said he was asking the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the matter.

In North Carolina, attorneys are not allowed to have consensual sexual relations with their clients. Allegations that such relations were violent or coercive would be criminal. The investigation remains ongoing, but the article on this news item, which appeared in late September, was CPP’s single most-read item of the year.

Students in an Asheville High School literature class work on a Shakespeare project together. Courtesy of Asheville City Schools.

8. Racial achievement gap in schools

Differences between the test scores of students of various ethnicities is a national concern. If education and testing are fair and equal, in theory white students and students of color should have similar scores. Two North Carolina school districts, Asheville and Chapel Hill, had some of the highest levels of racial disparity in test scores in the country.

In two stories appearing in February and June, CPP looked at what’s been happening in each district in an effort to change the situation.

In many ways, the efforts of Asheville school officials to divert attention from years of failed policies became the bigger story. CPP’s reporting showed that meetings supposedly inviting the public to discuss the racial achievement gap and policy solutions were so well concealed that most members of the public had no idea what was going on, the local news media had little idea and some of those attending did not understand that this was the purpose of these sessions.

Two shrimp trawlers are docked at Beaufort Inlet. Some are concerned that the loss of fish to the bycatch from trawlers has damaged populations of some species along North Carolina’s coast. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

9. Coastal fishing regulations

A proposal in the legislature would safeguard the future of coastal fishing in North Carolina by protecting species and giving them a chance to rebound. Or at least that’s what the measure’s supporters say.

Others are skeptical and some of them have a lot on the line economically. They point to the minimal support for this measure from coastal lawmakers.

An in-depth and scientifically informed CPP article in October look closely at many perspectives and conflicting agendas in trying to sort out what’s at stake as the legislature prepares to the tackle this issue, likely in early 2020.

The recently completed Mission Health North Tower houses the Asheville hospital’s new emergency room, part of several changes in facilities at the Asheville-based medical provider recently acquired by HCA. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

10. Mission Health deal with HCA

In early 2019, the North Carolina Department of Justice approved the acquisition of nonprofit hospital operator Mission Health by for-profit HCA.

But this move, involving the biggest medical provider in Western North Carolina, came with major stipulations, pleasing many community organizations that had expressed concerns about future access to medical services. The deal also created the Dogwood Foundation, which immediately became one of the state’s largest grantors, which a mission of funding projects related to the social determinants of health throughout the region.

CPP reported on many aspects of this ongoing transition, including the outcome for several lesser-known rural community health foundations whose mission will now focus on promoting community health. CPP also looked closely at delays in appointing the state-mandated independent monitor to oversee compliance with provisions of the deal and questions about whether some changes at Mission potentially went beyond what the state had agreed to allow.

In November, the Attorney General’s Office announced it was looking into those concerns.


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Staff Reports

This release, story or event was developed through multiple sources and/or is from the staff of Carolina Public Press.

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