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Winston-Salem police officers work the scene of a shooting that killed one man at BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse at Hanes Mall on Aug. 6 in Winston-Salem.

Five 911 recordings made in connection with a recent shooting death at a restaurant near Hanes Mall, currently sealed by a judge’s order, should be released as soon as possible. The public has a right to know the content of these calls.

On Aug. 6, Julius Randolph “Juice” Sampson Jr., a 32-year-old married father of three, got into an argument with Robert Anthony Granato, 22, inside BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, according to Winston-Salem police. The argument shifted to the parking lot outside and turned into a fight. At some point, police allege, Granato pulled out a gun and fatally shot Sampson. Granato is charged with felony murder.

At least five 911 recordings related to the incident were made — recordings that Judge David Hall of Forsyth Superior Court ordered sealed on Aug. 9. Such records are typically a public record. The Journal, along with television stations WXII, WGHP and WFMY, went to court in Forsyth County on Monday to request the release of these recordings, but Hall ruled that they would remain sealed at least until a hearing on Feb. 26, 2020, the Journal’s Michael Hewlett reported.

Hall said his biggest concern right now is jeopardizing an ongoing criminal investigation. Winston-Salem police are still interviewing witnesses — there are more than a dozen, according to Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin — and don’t want to risk the interviews being contaminated by the release of the recordings.

There’s some legitimacy to that concern. The investigation should be thorough.

But part of the human condition is living with faulty perceptions that subtlely shift over time. The interviews shouldn’t take six months.

And in the meantime, the public’s interest in the case is legitimate, as well. Fears and concerns about various aspects of the case — including police response time and a possible racial motive for the crime — could be illuminated by the release of the recordings.

Two 911 recordings, from two different callers who wanted to make sure police had been dispatched to the shooting, already have been released.

To complicate matters, police have said that both Granato, who is white, and Sampson, who was black, used a racial epithet during the altercation, with one source close to the investigation telling the Journal that Granato used a racial epithet after Sampson defended a female bartender in the restaurant. A 2014 picture on Granato’s Instagram account has also come to light, that shows him and a friend using the “OK” hand signal that became associated with white supremacy after 2017.

Police Chief Catrina Thompson acknowledged the epithets during a news conference, but said that so far, investigators have found that the shooting wasn’t motivated by race.

The North Carolina NAACP has demanded a full and transparent investigation into all possible motives for the shooting. In a news conference, Mayor Allen Joines said he and other elected officials would ensure a transparent police investigation.

Some armchair critics no doubt wish that the possible racial connotations of the case would just go away. But in today’s public environment, in which racism has come to be expressed more openly, it’s not going to go away. Indeed, it’s a legitimate concern.

Citizens’ rights are sometimes held in tension, one against another. Hall is correct to be concerned about the integrity of the investigation. The news organizations are correct to be concerned about the public’s right to know. We’ll keep pressing for that, with confidence that ultimately, the truth will be revealed.

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