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For judge in controversial sexual assault case, little accountability in play

Without hearing directly from his honor himself, it’s difficult to know what Judge L. Todd Burke was thinking when he tossed the keys to the jailhouse door to a credibly accused serial rapist.

Or if he was thinking at all.

Yet here we are.

Michael Dean Myers, 33, of High Point skipped out of the Guilford County Jail on Monday morning on a cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die written promise to show up for court.

He had been locked up behind a raft of serious charges — kidnapping, attempted first-degree rape, various sex offenses and assault.

His bond had been set at $5.5 million, and at the top of the checklist for justifying such a large amount would be to ensure the safety of the community.

Let that sink in for a minute … to ensure the safety of the community.

The charges for which Myers stands accused cannot be explained away as accidents or unfortunate circumstances. They can’t possibly be defended by the shameful, yet tried-and-true tactic of blaming the victim as frequently employed in sexual assault cases.

Legal Hail Mary

According to court documents, between Feb. 23 and March 25, 2018, five women told police that a man driving an SUV either picked them up or forced them into his vehicle. In some cases, detectives say the man assaulted and forced (or attempted to force) the victims to perform oral sex.

Two of the victims, police said, were prostitutes. A third was a 47-year-old woman who managed to fight off her assailant. A fourth was a 14-year-old girl who reported being threatened with a brick, being knocked down and being choked before submitting.

Five different victims were apparently chosen at random due to their relative vulnerability. What’s dangerous about that?

Myers was charged less than a week after the last incident and placed in the Guilford County Jail with his bond set at $5.5 million.

That would seem to be in line — or even low — for a credibly accused serial rapist and kidnapper.

A typical, standard issue bond worksheet lists a variety of factors that must be considered before decisions are made. Those include, but are not limited to, ties to the community, the risk of flight, employment history, family support and … protecting the safety of the community.

To get out before his trial, Myers would have had to either put up the $5.5 million himself — the state’s not going to take a check — or pay a bondsman $825,000 (15%). Fat chance, right?

Enter Burke, the chief Superior Court judge for Forsyth County, who happened to be presiding last week in Guilford County when Michael Troutman, Myers’ attorney, appeared in court with a couple of motions.

Even a mediocre defense attorney would know to throw a legal Hail Mary and argue that a client’s right to a speedy trial was being violated. That’s part of the job.

The first move, almost always as preposterous as it sounds, is to ask for the charges to be tossed. Burke didn’t bite.

But on the second, to unsecure the $5.5 million bond, Burke swallowed hook, bait, line, sinker — the entire rod, reel and half the boat. He unsecured the bond, which meant that Myers could walk on a signature and a promise.

Myers sauntered out first thing Monday morning after pinky-swearing that he’d show up for court and not contact the victims.

Not one single red cent changed hands, either.

‘Very upset’ victims

That left Guilford County prosecutors scrambling. Not only do they have to collect affidavits from the victims swearing that they intend to continue pressing charges, but they also had to break the news that Myers was out.

“The ones we were able to reach out to … they were, obviously, very upset with that decision,” assistant district attorney Lori Wickline told a reporter Monday.

Obviously.

For the rest of us, voters who elect Burke and taxpayers who pay his salary, outrage is the only recourse.

Burke is a candidate for another 8-year-term but he’s running against air. Incumbent sitting judges rarely face challengers.

The system is geared that way, and it’s usually for the good. Judges, because they’re supposed to be impartial, should be afforded every opportunity to avoid the unseemly partisan politicking, groveling and money grubbing required of candidates for other elected offices.

But that doesn’t mean they should be above criticism.

Burke did not return messages seeking further explanation. But he’s no stranger to being called out, and he knows that standing by his decisions is part of a deal that comes with a six-figure salary and a sweet retirement package.

For example, Burke faced considerable blow-back in 2012 when he threw out — in the middle of a trial — felony cruelty charges against a woman for intentionally starving a dog to death.

That, too, was in response to a Hail Mary motion lobbed by a good defense lawyer. I guarantee he remembers that one.

Odds are high that Burke will outlast this latest controversy, too. Running unopposed in a safe district tends to do that.


Z-no-digital
WS/FCS teachers, athletic directors and coaches train to prevent fatal blood loss

As a first responder at North Forsyth High School, Travis Atkins said it is imperative for him to know how to stop a bleeding wound.

Health experts say that a person could die in five minutes if a major bleed is not stopped.

“I’m the first teacher they call when there’s a problem in school or when somebody passes out or goes down,” said Atkins, a PE and health teacher.

He believes that all first responders at schools should receive the Stop The Bleed training that he recently participated in at Paisley IB Magnet School.

Stop The Bleed is a national awareness campaign aimed at stopping traumatic blood loss.

The training at Paisley was made possible through a partnership between Wake Forest Baptist Health and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

During the event, nursing staff and certified athletic trainers from Wake Forest Baptist demonstrated how to provide immediate bleeding control to victims of a traumatic event before professional help arrives.

Participants learned basic life-saving techniques such as how to apply pressure with their hands, how to apply a dressing and press a wound, and how to use a tourniquet.

Chris Ina, manager of Athletic Training Services for Wake Forest Baptist, said if pressure on a wound doesn’t work, then it’s time to pack the wound with whatever is at hand such as a T-shirt, sweater or old towel.

“They don’t have to be sterile or anything, just as long as you stop the bleeding,” Ina said.

The tourniquets in the kits are military-grade.

“It’s the real deal,” Ina said. “It’s not like using your belt.”

PE and health teachers, athletics directors and coaches practiced on a dummy leg that included a laceration from a knife, a bullet hole and a puncture wound.

Jonathan Wilson, WS/FCS’s security director, said bleeding-control kits have been in the hands of trainers for some time, but now training is being provided to such staff as PE teachers and coaches in an effort to get the kits into every elementary, middle and high school.

“This is the first step,” Wilson said. “We’re going to start training additional staff, including principals and APs (assistant principals) in weeks and months to come. Hopefully, these things will be readily available if we ever need them.”

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools received more than 200 bleeding-control kits from Wake Forest Baptist to be distributed among the school system’s elementary, middle and high schools. These kits are similar to the trauma kits that the health system has donated to state and local law-enforcement agencies and other area school systems.

Ina said the number of kits received by schools would depend on the size of the school, but each school in the district would get at least two.

The Stop The Bleed campaign, supported by Homeland Security and the American College of Surgeons, is part of the outreach and injury prevention that Wake Forest Baptist supports as a Level I trauma center.

Ina said that the Stop The Bleed program is for anyone, not just schools.

“You’re in a car accident or you witness a car accident or you are at a sporting event and some kid runs into the fence and slices open his arm,” Ina said. “It could be anywhere.”

Natalie Layden, a PE and life-management teacher at Reagan High School, said that the training is extremely important.

“You just never know when a tragic accident is going to happen,” Layden said.

She had the training previously with her ninth-grade life-skills students through Shawn Griffin, an injury-prevention and outreach coordinator for the trauma center at Wake Forest Baptist.

“They are just starting to drive, so it’s huge,” she said of the training.

Sara Harmon, program manager for Healthful Living for WS/FCS, also spoke of the importance of the training, saying she tends to see teachers as “the do-it-all people in many of their buildings because health and PE teachers get to wear a lot of hats. I think given the number of students they serve and the many ways in which they work with students both inside and outside of school time, this is hugely important.”


Local
NC gets an F for tobacco prevention efforts, says advocacy group

North Carolina has once again flunked its tobacco-prevention evaluation, as graded by the American Lung Association.

The nonprofit group, in its annual State of Tobacco Control report, gave North Carolina a failing grade in all five categories it reviews: funding for state tobacco prevention programs, strength of smokefree workplace laws, level of state tobacco taxes, coverage and access to services to quit tobacco and minimum age of sale for tobacco products.

The minimum age category grade is likely to rise given that Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed into law Dec. 20, age-21 restrictions on all tobacco products.

The report grades states and the federal government on policies proven to prevent and reduce tobacco use. Its common denominator is that “elected officials should do more to save lives and ensure all residents benefit from reductions in tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke.”

The group said a significant portion of North Carolina’s F grades comes from “the federal government’s failure to enact policies called for in the report, such as increased tobacco taxes and stronger federal oversight of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.”

North Carolina’s excise tax on vapor products is 5 cents per fluid milliliter of consumable product — a rate supported by tobacco manufacturers when the law took effect in February 2015.

The excise tax on a pack of traditional cigarettes is 45 cents, one of the lowest rates in the country.

However, the group stressed “the need for North Carolina to act to protect youth from all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, is more urgent than ever.”

“With the youth vaping epidemic still rising, we may have lost an opportunity to make the current generation of kids the first tobacco-free generation.” said June Deen, the group’s director of advocacy.

The report borrows from other anti-tobacco advocacy reports.

North Carolina went from 42nd to 44th in terms of how much money it puts annually toward those programs, such as quit lines and public health marketing initiatives, according to the 21st annual “Broken promises to our children” report released in December.

State spending on tobacco-prevention programs declined from $2.8 million in fiscal 2017-18 to $2.2 million in 2018-19, according to the coalition sponsoring the Broken Promises report.

By contrast, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend North Carolina spend $99.3 million on such programs.

North Carolina gained $455.7 million in fiscal 2018-19 related to tobacco excise tax and its share of the annual Master Settlement Agreement payments from tobacco manufacturers.

“An investment in prevention is especially important given the skyrocketing number of youth who are vaping,” the American Lung Association said.

The group said Congress needs to follow through on passing legislation to eliminate all flavored tobacco products.

Otherwise, the group said, it is critical that states take that step through their legislature.

However, North Carolina’s heritage as a tobacco-growing state has made it challenging to ramp up funding for prevention initiatives.

Tobacco companies, including R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., agreed in 1998 to settle lawsuits that 46 state attorneys general brought over smoking-related health-care costs by paying those states at least $246 billion over 20 years. Some Master Settlement Agreement payments remain in place beyond 2018.

Economists say most states have become dependent on the settlement money and tobacco excise taxes to fill general-fund gaps.

In 2011, the Republican-controlled General Assembly abolished the N.C. Health and Wellness Fund — funded by settlement dollars — after 10 years of existence as part of an attempt to resolve a state budget gap.

The average annual spending on the state programs was $17 million at that time.

House Bill 725, co-sponsored by N.C. Rep Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth), would enhance state initiatives to prevent young people from using tobacco products with a $17 million boost for both budget years.

It has not been heard in committee since being introduced April 15.

In the 2017 session, bipartisan House Bill 435 would have raised the smoking and vaping age to 21. Lambeth was a co-sponsor of that bill as well. It was sent to House Rules and Operations Committee, where it collected dust for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 legislative sessions.


Z-no-digital
Duke Energy's proposed rate hike generates complaints

GRAHAM — About 100 people turned out for a public hearing Wednesday evening on Duke Energy’s proposed rate hike, very few of them supporters of an increase that’s said to cost the average residential customer about $97 more per year.

The hearing was the third of four being hosted by the N.C. Utilities Commission, which has the authority to grant the request in full, trim it or reject it.

Speakers from throughout the region criticized the increase because significant amounts would be spent cleaning up coal ash.

Some said the increase would be a hardship for Duke customers living on fixed incomes.

“Consider the people of Gibsonville who don’t have the means, who lost their pensions when the mills closed,” Gibsonville Mayor Leonard Williams implored.

John Merrell, a Triad AARP volunteer spokesman, said such increases are particularly hard on North Carolina’s increasing population of retirees.

At a news conference before the hearing, a half-dozen environmental and civic groups said it simply was not fair for Duke to stick customers with the cost of cleaning up a mess of the utility’s own making.

On its own and without customer involvement, the Charlotte-based utility made bad decisions to invest heavily in coal-fired plants and to store their waste in basins at a high risk of failure, critics said.

They believe the utility’s corporate executives and shareholders should shoulder the cost of ash cleanup at the Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County, the former Dan River Steam Station near Eden and six other current or retired coal-fired plants elsewhere in North Carolina.

“Why should the people who suffer the most pick up the tab for the people who profit the most?” asked David Hairston, who lives near the Belews Creek plant in Walnut Cove.

Duke Energy petitioned the Utilities Commission to approve the rate increase in late September, setting into motion a months-long process that included Wednesday’s public hearing and one in Charlotte tonight.

Public hearings also were held earlier this month in Franklin and Morganton, but they were more sparsely attended than Wednesday’s gathering.

Duke Energy executives and consultants argue that disposing of coal ash is a normal part of using the fossil fuel to make power, a cost customers should share.

While in disrepute now, storing ash in submerged basins was standard operating procedure for electric utilities nationwide in years past, one carried out under the direct supervision and approval of government regulators, Duke Energy asserts.

The company has said it wants “a net base rate increase in its retail revenues of approximately $445.3 million, which represents an approximate 9.2 percent increase in annual revenues.”

But that overall increase would be reduced by recent federal tax breaks worth $154.6 million, bringing the proposed burden for customers down to just less than $291 million, “which represents an approximate overall (six) percent increase,” Duke Energy has said.

The company has told the commission it would use the additional money to, among other things, “generate cleaner power” and “efficiently restore service to customers after major storm damage.”