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Forsyth districts OK'd by General Assembly now face court scrutiny

The North Carolina General Assembly has approved dozens of new state House and Senate districts for the 2020 election cycle, including big changes for Forsyth County in both chambers.

Now it is up to the court to rule on whether the new districts pass muster. A three-judge panel ordered districts redrawn after it found bias in favor of Republicans.

Forsyth County still has two Senate districts and five House districts, but if the plans stand, most of the county’s voters would find themselves in either a new House or Senate district.

Or both: Of the county’s 101 precincts, 45 would be in either a new Senate or House district, and another 27 would be in new districts in both chambers.

On Tuesday, it was up to the House and Senate to pass on the districts that had been approved earlier by the other chamber.

The Senate passed the House districts on a 24-21 vote that followed party lines. The House approved the Senate districts on a 62-52 vote that largely followed party lines.

In Forsyth County, many of the district changes are sweeping in geographical scope, but appear less so in political leanings. In both the House and Senate redistricting plans, incumbents would remain in districts with voting histories favorable to their parties.

In the House, 54 of the county’s 101 precincts would move to a different House district in 2020.

For sheer numbers, the biggest Forsyth County change in the House could be in District 74, now held by Rep. Debra Conrad, a Republican. Conrad would keep only four of the precincts in her current district: Her home precinct, 809, which votes at Jefferson Middle School, and 131 (Vienna Baptist Church), 132 (Pfafftown Christian Church) and 908 (Old Town Baptist Church).

As presently constituted, Conrad’s district wraps around the northern side of Forsyth County from Tobaccoville to northern Kernersville. Conrad’s new district would cover the western and southwestern parts of the county, including Lewisville and Clemmons along with parts of Winston-Salem.

The most complete change would be in those parts of Forsyth County that are combined with all of Yadkin County to form District 73. The 73rd is held by Rep. Lee Zachary, a Yadkin County Republican.

Presently, Zachary represents a group of precincts in western Forsyth County, including parts of Lewisville. None of those areas would be in the new 73rd, which would now include sections of the northwest area of Forsyth County, including Tobaccoville and Rural Hall.

Meanwhile, the 75th District, held by Republican Donny Lambeth, would lose some areas that are located mostly in southwestern Forsyth County. The new 75th would gain most of the eastern Forsyth precincts that Conrad is losing.

The 71st District, now held by Democrat Evelyn Terry, keeps its central portion but loses most of the Ardmore neighborhood in the west. In exchange, the district picks up areas stretching from the City View neighborhood along Old Greensboro Road to parts of Walkertown.

The 71st also reaches down to the Davidson County line toward the southwest.

The 72nd District might seem the least affected by redistricting, but even there the district would add 12 precincts it didn’t include before. The seat is held by Rep. Derwin Montgomery, a Democrat.

The new 72nd would gain most of the sections of Ardmore lost by the 71st, but lose other areas on the northwestern and northeastern sides of the current district.

On the Senate side, both the new and old plans pair Forsyth County’s 31st District with all of Davie County. The 31st District is represented by Sen. Joyce Krawiec, a Republican.

In Forsyth County, the 31st District would pick up 19 precincts on the eastern side of Winston-Salem, and lose 26 precincts on the northwestern and western sides of the county, including some western Winston-Salem precincts.

It’s a swap between the 31st and 32nd Senate districts. The 32nd district would gain the areas lost by the 31st, and lose the precincts that the 31st would gain. The 32nd District is represented by Sen. Paul Lowe, a Winston-Salem Democrat.

Voters in Lewisville, Tobaccoville and Rural Hall would find themselves in new Senate districts, as would many voters in Winston-Salem, Walkertown and Clemmons.

On the other hand, voters in Kernersville will remain in the 31st District, as would voters in the area stretching south from Kernersville toward the Davidson County line.

Redistricting plans aren’t subject to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, but the judges will now review the plans with the help of an outside expert. The judges could sign off on the maps as they are or redraw some or all of the altered districts. A decision probably won’t be immediate.

“We are optimistic that the way we’ve handled this is not just consistent with what the court directed us to do, but (was) within the spirit of what the court wanted us to do,” Senate leader Phil Berger said.

A timeline set by the trial court allows legal briefs objecting to the replacement districts by Sept. 27, with any response to those objections filed by Oct. 4. Candidate filing begins in early December for next year’s elections, starting with early March primaries.

Common Cause, a plaintiff in the partisan gerrymandering lawsuit, mentioned the maps’ approval in a news release but didn’t reveal whether it believes the maps comply with the court’s standards.

Twin City Talks: Forsyth County DA supports legalizing medicinal marijuana

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill told state Rep. Derwin Montgomery on Tuesday that if Montgomery pushes a bill to legalize the use of medicinal marijuana, O’Neill would get the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys to support the legislation.

“I will push that, (and) help you get that through if you push it,” O’Neill, the incoming president of the district attorneys’ conference, told Montgomery.

O’Neill’s comments drew applause from nearly 140 people who attended the Twin City Talks Community Forum.

“I’m going to take you up on that,” Montgomery responded to O’Neill.

O’Neill and Montgomery were part of a panel discussing the topic “Pot or Not: Is It Time for Marijuana Laws to Change?” Others on the panel were Capt. Henry Gray of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office; Abner Brown, the executive director of the North Carolina chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; and Chris Eastwood, the Triad representative for N.C. NORML.

The discussion, which was sponsored by the Winston-Salem Journal and OrthoCarolina, was held at Footnote at 634 W. Fourth St. in Winston-Salem. Michael Hewlett, who covers the local courts and legal affairs for the Journal, moderated the panel discussion.

Many audience members indicated that they support legalizing the medical use, and eventually the recreational use, of marijuana.

O’Neill is a Republican who is running for North Carolina attorney general in 2020. Montgomery is a Forsyth County Democrat who is serving his first term in the N.C. House.

O”Neill told the audience that his mother could have benefited from the medicinal marijuana before she died of cancer several years ago.

“It was hard to watch that,” O’Neill said of his mother’s illness. “And I was her primary caregiver.”

O’Neill said that his father, who is 90, was taken Tuesday to Duke University Hospital in Durham to be treated for cancer.

“If there was a medicinal marijuana bill that was out there, I would be all for it,” O’Neill said. “Unfortunately, I don’t get to vote, but I support that. I understand the benefits of it when you talk about medicinal use, and I understand how it can help in terms of appetite and those sorts of things.”

O’Neill also said many murders in Winston-Salem involve robberies and often times the killing of drug dealers who sold marijuana. The accused killers didn’t get high on marijuana before they committed their violent acts, O’Neill said.

“I’m just giving you the facts,” O’Neill said. “People are getting robbed over the marijuana, and potentially shot and killed.”

“You don’t have to like the information,” O’Neill said to audience. “I’m just sharing what I see day in and day out. And that’s the truth.”

Gray, who leads the sheriff’s office’s narcotics unit, said his investigators have seen a stronger potency of marijuana being sold in Forsyth County. Gray said he understands the medical benefits of marijuana, but then he asked the audience, “Do you want your neighborhoods safe, or do you want to smoke marijuana?”

Montgomery said that many violent crimes also linked to people using alcohol.

“I don’t know how we eliminate the black market on it (marijuana),” Montgomery said.

Montgomery is a co-sponsor of the N.C. Medical Cannibus Act that would legalize the medical use of marijuana, also known as cannibus.

Montgomery also has co-sponsored legislation that would make it legal to possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana and would legalize several controlled substances including marijuana that have been approved under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

None of those bills has been discussed in various committees in the N.C. House, where Republicans hold the majority, Montgomery said.

Research has shown that many North Carolinians support the legalization of medical marijuana, Montgomery said. However, some legislators link the use of marijuana to criminal behavior, Montgomery said.

Research shows that 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana in some form. Marijuana possession is illegal in North Carolina, but O’Neill said that Winston-Salem police and Forsyth County sheriff’s deputies don’t arrest or cite residents who possess small amounts of marijuana.

Federal law also forbids the possession, sale and production of marijuana.

Crime has decreased in states where marijuana is legal, Brown and Eastwood said. They expect North Carolina to eventually legalize medicinal marijuana and the recreational use of marijuana.

“It’s coming,” Eastwood said. “It’s going to happen.”

It makes economic sense for North Carolina to legalize marijuana because the state can get tax revenue from the sale of it, Brown said.

“We need to build a better system,” Brown said. “It’s not about taking things away from the people. It’s about the best way to move forward and everyone getting the best deal.”

Rebecca Forbes of Charlotte, an audience member, said that she supports legalize medicinal marijuana in North Carolina.

“I’m ready for this to be over with,” Forbes said. “We need to sit down and do it.”

Sneak peek of new voting machines to be offered

People can get a sneak peek at new voting machines on Friday and cast ballots on them as well, as the Forsyth County Board of Elections tries to figure out what kind of machine to buy.

The three companies that the state has certified to provide voting machines will be on hand to show off their wares and let people cast pretend ballots, said Tim Tsujii, the director of elections in Forsyth County.

The county elections board will meet on Tuesday to select one of the three companies to provide the county’s new voting machines, Tsujii said. The machine now in use, the iVotronic touch-screen system, will be decertified for use on Dec. 1.

“We will welcome any and all feedback” from the people who come out to take the machines on a test drive, Tsujii said.

The demonstration of the new machines will take place from 9 a.m. to noon on the fourth floor of the Forsyth County Government Center, located at 201 N. Chestnut St.

The state has mandated that any new voting systems used in the counties must produce a paper ballot that can be used as a backup copy of each individual vote cast. That way, if a hand-to-eye count or recount is required, the paper ballots can be used to carry that out.

The three companies are Clear Ballot, ES&S and Hart Intercivic. Each company produces a variety of equipment types at different prices, with faster tabulators generally costing more.

During the three-hour period set aside for the demonstration of the equipment, each company will get a 15-minute slot to do a presentation on its particular offerings.

Forsyth County is only one of a number of counties conducting the tests as preparations for the 2020 election cycle get underway.

Tsujii said that by law, once the elections board selects equipment it has to test it in the next election, which in the case of Forsyth would be the municipal elections on Nov. 5.

Early voting for municipal elections runs from Oct. 16 through Nov. 1.

Greensboro man being retried for murder in fatal shooting at apartment complex. He is also charged with trying to hire someone to kill main eyewitness -- the victim's girlfriend.

A Greensboro man not only shot his former friend to death in Winston-Salem nearly two years ago but he also tried to hire someone to kill the man’s girlfriend, who is the main eyewitness to the shooting, a Forsyth County prosecutor said Tuesday in opening statements in Forsyth Superior Court.

William Anthony Brown, 30, of the 1900 block of Sheldon Road in Greensboro is on trial for first-degree murder in the March 10, 2017, shooting death of Jahmil Ismail Al-Amin in the parking lot of a Winston-Salem apartment complex. He is also charged with one count of solicitation of first-degree murder and one count of attempted solicitation of first-degree murder. In addition, Brown is charged with possession of a firearm by a felon and discharging a firearm into occupied property.

This is the second time Brown has stood trial for first-degree murder. Last year, a Forsyth County judge declared a mistrial after a jury was hopelessly deadlocked at 9-3. The jury could not come to the necessary unanimous verdict after deliberating eight hours over three days.

As Brown’s second trial started Tuesday, Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Matt Breeding told jurors that Brown and Al-Amin used to be friends, close enough that they visited each other residences. But in fall 2016, the two had a falling out and the friendship ended, he told jurors.

They didn’t talk over the next five months, but Brown sent a Facebook message to a friend of his on the morning of March 10, 2017, saying he was going out to look for Al-Amin.

That night, while waiting for Al-Amin to come back from running some errands, Kayuana Talley was sitting on the arm of a sofa in an apartment, Breeding told the court, and was looking out the window for him. She said she saw a silver Chevrolet Malibu drive slowly by the apartment complex.

The same car returned and backed up between Talley’s car and another car.

Breeding said Talley told police that when Al-Amin came to the front door, someone from the car called him back. He had a brief conversation with the people in the car that appeared to her to be friendly. Then she saw the driver pull out a gun and fire seven to eight times. She recognized the man as Brown, whom she only knew as Skeme, Breeding said.

Bullets pierced Al-Amin’s heart, lungs and bowels, according to prosecutors. Talley, Breeding said, ran out of the apartment and started performing chest compressions on Al-Amin. When a Winston-Salem police officer arrived, she told him that Skeme had shot Al-Amin. Talley later pointed to Brown’s photo on his Facebook page, where he also identified himself as “Bossman Skeme,” Breeding said.

According to the prosecutor, after the shooting, Brown drove back to Greensboro, where he searched for news of the shooting. That morning, he deactivated his cellphone and got a new one, Breeding said.

And nine days later, when questioned by Winston-Salem police, Brown insisted that he had been home in Greensboro at the time of the shooting.

Breeding said that while Brown was awaiting trial at the Forsyth County jail, he slipped a note to another inmate providing information about Talley and saying that a “rat” needed to be taken care of.

He also sent a letter addressed to a Ray Inge Jr., whom Brown alleged was a criminal-defense attorney. But, Breeding said, detention officers found no evidence that Inge was a lawyer licensed to practice in North Carolina or Virginia. And the address was to a house, not a law office, Breeding said.

Jason Crump, Brown’s attorney, said Talley gave inconsistent statements. When she was asked by a 911 dispatcher who shot Al-Amin, she replied that she didn’t know, Crump said. He urged jurors to keep an open mind and to listen to all the evidence.

The trial is expected to take all week and could go into next week.