A North Carolina judge ruled Tuesday that Gaston County police must release all but one of the many 911 calls made after a high-speed crash killed 6-year-old Liam Lagunas in June.
Rejecting the county District Attorney's effort to keep the recordings confidential, Superior Court Judge Donald Bridges said nine of the 10 calls must be released.
The call to be kept under wraps was made by Gracie Eaves, one driver charged in the wreck, the Observer has learned. The judge did not release her name, but his order states that the call "possesses a clear threat to the fairness of the trial."
The ruling was a partial victory for the Charlotte Observer, which had petitioned the court to release the recordings. The contents of 911 calls are public records that only a judge can exempt from release to the public, according to state law.
The Gaston County District Attorney's office will make the recordings available to the public soon, officials said.
The 911 calls came in to dispatchers the night of June 26, when a 100-mph street race on U.S. 74 in Gaston County ended in the crash that killed Liam, investigators say. Liam and his father were traveling in the other direction after a stop for ice cream when one of the speeding cars lost control, flew across the median and slammed into them.
Donnie Ray Cobb, the driver who lost control that night, is charged with second-degree murder, DWI and other offenses. Eaves is been charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Ten people called 911 the night Cobb's Audi crossed a grassy median and slammed into Liam's father's sedan. Eaves made the longest of the calls, staying on the phone more than 11 minutes, Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hamlin told the judge during an Oct. 12 hearing.
Eaves, present at both hearings, declined an Observer reporter's request for comment Tuesday.
State law says that 911 recordings are public record, except for any information identifying the caller.
"Given the contents of 911 call #7, it would be impossible to screen identifying information ..." the judge wrote in his order.
The dispute over the public records began in late August, when a Charlotte Observer reporter requested recordings of the calls. County officials refused to provide access to the recordings, noting that the county District Attorney did not want them released.
Jon Buchan, an attorney representing the Observer, notified county officials that only a judge has the authority to block the release of such records under state law. Subsequently, the county filed motions to prevent the records from being disclosed.
County District Attorney Travis Page sought Bridges' support at the hearing, arguing that releasing the calls would interfere with the ongoing investigation into the crash and jeopardize the defendants' rights to a fair trial. Attorneys for Cobb and Eaves told the judge that they, too, believed that releasing the recordings would be unfair to their clients.
"They are very impactful calls," Page told Bridges. "They have had an impact on me and an impact on my staff. And I'm concerned about the impact they'll have on prospective jurors."
Buchan countered that such "speculative" arguments aren't sufficient to block the release of the the records under state law. By statute, 911 recordings are public records unless a law enforcement agency demonstrates by the greater weight of the evidence that their release would harm an investigation or a defendant's right to a fair trial.
"It's clear that the General Assembly believed and understood that the public needs to have access to this sort of information," Buchan told the judge.
Cobb attended both hearings, wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles. He limped to his seat in the courtroom. Since the crash, he has been in prison awaiting trial and receiving medical attention for injuries he suffered in the crash.
The crash has already been the focus of many news stories, including in-depth articles in the Charlotte Observer, Buchan noted. Courts don't require jurors to be unaware of the events leading to criminal trials, he said.
"As our courts have consistently held, the goal is not to empanel a jury that has never been exposed to any news coverage of a high-profile criminal case,' Buchan wrote in a memorandum to the court, "but to empanel a jury that will not base its conclusions 'upon pre-trial information rather than evidence introduced at trial...' "
Careful jury selection - and strict admonitions that jurors consider only evidence presented in court - are powerful tools for ensuring a fair and impartial jury, Buchan said.
Page told the judge that the Highway Patrol's investigation into the June 26 crash isn't complete. If the recordings are released now, some witnesses might change their stories to conform to what the 911 callers said, he said.
Buchan said he found it hard to believe that investigators haven't interviewed those witnesses already.
"This story is important," Buchan told the judge. "And it's important for the public to understand as much about it as they can. And to know about it now."
What happened the night of the crash has happened before. An investigation by the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer this year found that extreme speeding is rampant on North Carolina roads, and that the consequences can be deadly. Despite that, the state's courts let thousands of those speeders off easy.
Cobb, the driver charged with murder in Liam's death, had previously been charged with dozens of offenses - including at least 10 previous speeding charges, N.C. court and DMV records show. Courts reduced or dismissed the large majority of those speeding charges, the Observer found.