Asheville prosecutors want journalists’ lawyer to stop talking to the press

By: - May 9, 2023 12:01 pm
A sign for Asheville's Aston Park

Asheville’s Aston Park, where Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were arrested for covering police sweeping a homeless encampment on Christmas night 2021.

The Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office has asked a judge to reprimand an attorney representing two journalists convicted last month of trespassing while reporting late Christmas night 2021 on police activity in Asheville’s Aston Park.

The attorney’s offense, according to Assistant District Attorney Robert A. McRight: talking to the press.

A rule set by the North Carolina State Bar prohibits attorneys from commenting on cases outside the courtroom in a way that they know is likely to influence the outcome of a pending case.

Buncombe County prosecutors have a jury pool to consider. Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit, two journalists for the leftist news source The Asheville Blade, are appealing their misdemeanor convictions decided by a District Court judge last month. The reporters’ attorney, Ben Scales, will plead their case in a jury trial in Superior Court that is slated to begin next month.

Bliss and Coit were arrested for covering police presence at Aston Park after it had closed for the night, when police were telling protestors and members of the homeless population to get off park grounds. Their arrests, and that of 16 other mutual aid workers for felony littering, have become a flashpoint in how the progressive city responds to homelessness, protests and criticism.

Scales argued in Coit and Bliss’ bench trial that the reporters were arrested as retaliation for their critical coverage of the police department.

After the proceedings, Scales told NC Newsline he would seek much more discovery in the appeal, to show a jury that the police knew who Coit and Bliss were and what their viewpoints are — the Blade is in favor of police abolition — and arrested them because of it.

Those comments, and the Newsline article, are included in a court filing McRight made last week. McRight did not ask for sanctions or a gag order, but asked the Superior Court to “advise Mr. Scales to take care to abide by the Rules of Professional Conduct, specifically Rule 3.6, and for any other such relief as this Court deems just and proper.”

McRight relied on several public statements Scales has made to make his case that Scales’ comments could impact what happens in the impending trial. On May 2, Scales told the Asheville Citizen-Times that the District Court was wrong in its decision of the case, which McRight called “out of court commentary.” (In that same article Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams said he could not publicly comment on the case, per the State Bar rules of professional conduct.)

The bulk of the evidence McRight attached to the court filing involves the transcript of a virtual appearance Scales made alongside Coit and Bliss on a digital panel entitled “Why is Buncombe County DA prosecuting journalists.” McRight accused Scales of making several comments “intended to materially prejudice an adjudicative proceeding” by tainting prospective jurors’ perspective on the case before they even set foot in a courtroom.

Scales, who has challenged Williams on two occasions to be Buncombe County’s top prosecutor, said during the panel discussion that he wasn’t sure why Williams was pursuing the charges, but guessed it was because of pressure from the police to seek a conviction.

“Why he wasn’t able to stand up to the police on this situation,” I don’t know,” said Scales. “Maybe he agrees that these people should be prosecuted.”

Scales also said during the panel that he works in the Buncombe County courthouse every day, and he sees cases stacking up as Williams’ office spends money and time trying to convict Bliss and Coit.

“I see time being wasted, money being wasted, and wasted in a way that harms I think the public’s trust of the system,” Scales said. “This isn’t like somebody murdered somebody or stole something.”

Scales also promised he’d be putting on more evidence in the jury trial, just as he told NC Newsline.

“If you’re in any way involved in this case and you work for the City of Asheville you will be getting a subpoena,” he said on the digital forum.

Scales pledged to “expose” the police and prosecutors’ office for trying to silence the journalists and the protestors charged with felony littering, who were also banned from public parks for three years.

“Unless they come to their senses and dismiss it,” Scales said on the stream, “and then we’re free to move into federal court where we’ll sue them for taking these actions.”

McRight asked the court to hold a hearing no later than May 30, so they can check in regarding the looming trial and consider how to appropriately enforce the subpoenas Scales has publicly promised.

In an email, Scales said, “The document speaks for itself. I don’t believe I have violated the Rules, and I have no further comment at this time.”

The reporters are currently set to go on trial on June 12.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.