Newspaper Editor, Reporter Could Be Sentenced to Jail For Use of Recorder During Trial

A newspaper editor and reporter from North Carolina could be sentenced to jail for the use of an audio recorder during a murder trial.

News editor Gavin Stone of the Richmond County Daily Journal was already sentenced to five days in jail by North Carolina Superior Court Judge Stephan Futrell last month for criminal contempt of court after reporter Matthew Sasser brought a recorder into court on June 21 and 22, according to the Associated Press. Stone was released the next day and Sasser was fined $500 for criminal contempt of court.

However, Futrell has dismissed the original penalties and is handing Stone and Sasser over to an appeals court to decide if both should pay $500 and spend up to 30 days in prison.

"The penalty does not fit the crime," said the newspaper's publisher Brian Bloom about the judge's original move to penalize Stone and Sasser.

Although the Superior Court allows electronic media and still photography of public trials, it is up to the judge to bar technology's use, according to the Associated Press.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Prison Bars
A newspaper editor and reporter in North Carolina could be sentenced to jail over the use of a recorder during a murder trial. In this photo from October 14, 2013, a prisoner's hands inside a punishment cell wing at Angola prison. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the "Alcatraz of the South" and "The Farm" is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections. Giles Clarke/Getty Images

The paper and media rights groups consider Stone and Sasser's punishment excessive.

Stone initially was sentenced to five days in jail before he was handcuffed in court and hauled off to jail.

Bloom acknowledged that his reporter shouldn't have had the recorder in court because it was not allowed but criticized the judge's move to imprison an editor for a minor infraction committed by a colleague.

"Let's put this in perspective: You stop a murder trial not once, but twice, because a guy had a tape recorder sitting next to him on a bench at a courtroom. Let's put our priorities in place here," he said.

Futrell did not respond to a request for comment.

Sasser, who has worked at the paper only since January, brought the recorder into the courtroom after being screened through courthouse security, Bloom said.

Stone, who in January 2020 received a letter from a different judge reprimanding him for taking a photo inside a courtroom, was aware cellphones were prohibited and had been notified at the time that he wasn't allowed to bring a "cellphone, camera or any other recording device into the courthouse" unless he had a judge's permission.

Having remembered only the prohibition on cellphones, Stone told Sasser that an audio recorder was fine. Sasser used the device during a recess to interview a source in the courtroom. When Futrell learned Sasser had the recorder, he halted the trial and directed the reporter to remove it from his courtroom.

Sasser went back to the newsroom. A bailiff called him to return to court to speak with the judge and Stone accompanied him back.

The two expected the judge to speak with them behind closed doors but were surprised when a bailiff directed them inside the courtroom, where Futrell stopped the trial again and found the editor and reporter in criminal contempt of court.

"I was blown away that the decision was made that fast," Stone said. "It happened so fast. There was no real way to process it in the moment and recognize what I was even involved in. All of a sudden, I'm in orange."

Bloom hastily found an attorney who filed an appeal and got Stone out of jail the next day.

"It's a little disturbing when a judge starts contempt proceedings over the use of an unobtrusive, quiet, pocket-sized device that a reporter uses to do their job in a courtroom," said Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and an assistant professor of journalism at Elon University.

Jonathan Jones, a private attorney in Durham who handles free speech cases, called the judge's decision "extremely unusual." Jones said an appeals court should find that Stone was wrongfully held in direct criminal contempt since he wasn't the one disrupting court proceedings. He said that Stone was entitled to a lawyer before Futrell sentenced him and it's open for debate whether Sasser deserved to be held in contempt.

The newspaper's appeal is scheduled to be heard July 16.

Under North Carolina law, courts can punish someone for criminal contempt if the act was preceded by a clear warning from the court that the conduct was improper. A person held in criminal contempt can be punished through a formal reprimand, imprisonment of up to 30 days, a fine up to $500 or any combination of the three.

The newspaper stopped covering the murder trial once Stone was taken into custody, partially out of fear the judge would retaliate. It has not reported on Stone's arrest or Sasser's fine.