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In dramatic testimony, victim in sex abuse case Newman pled out confronts him

District Attorney Greg Newman testifies during a hearing on whether he is removed from office. [AMY McCRAW/Hendersonville Lightning] District Attorney Greg Newman testifies during a hearing on whether he is removed from office. [AMY McCRAW/Hendersonville Lightning]

Valerie Marie Owenby got her day in court at last.

Owenby, now 22, offered dramatic testimony during a hearing on the possible removal of District Attorney Greg Newman that opened Monday morning in the Grove Street Courthouse. Owenby told a judge that Newman robbed her of her chance to confront the man who she said raped her as child when he decided to settle the case without her knowledge.

 “I was not able to look him in the eyes and tell him what he had done to me, what trauma he had done to me," she said. "He took something I wasn’t able to get back. He took my virginity. He took my childhood. He took every ounce of trust I had away in an instant and you let him go like it was nothing.”

Owenby testified during the opening day of a hearing at the Henderson County Courthouse in which an independent counsel is arguing that Newman should be removed from office.

Owenby testified that the man, James Franklin Sapp, molested her from the time she was 5 years old until she was 12. She told her mother about the abuse and then reported it to authorities when she was 14.

A grand jury handed down five felony sexual assault charges against Sapp six months after Owenby spoke to investigators. She said she believed then that he would be prosecuted on the charges.

 “I had high hopes at the time. It went downhill from there,” Owenby said as her voice broke and she wiped her nose with a tissue.

Owenby’s testimony came after Independent Counsel James P. Cooney III told Superior Court Judge Robert C. Ervin that the District 29B prosecutor had committed dishonesty and fraud in the execution of his duties and deserved to be ousted. Newman’s handling of Owenby’s case is one of the reasons Cooney cited when arguing Newman should be removed from office.

In his opening argument, Cooney said ample grounds exist to support the removal of the district attorney. He cited the three pillars of the case against the elected prosecutor for Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties:

  • A plea deal Newman made that allowed Sapp, a defendant charged with five child sexual abuse felonies to plead guilty to one misdemeanor in a brief proceeding that the victim was not made aware of.
  • The successful charge of vindictive prosecution by a defendant, Leonard Schalow, who has been jailed for eight and a half years. The case currently is on appeal before the state Supreme Court.
  • Newman's dismissal of drug charges, while district attorney, in an unusual motion involving a former client, known only as CB, when he was a defense attorney. That case resulted in a Bar grievance and reprimand.

“This is only the third proceeding like this in the history of North Carolina," Cooney told the court.

If the proceeding is a rarity in North Carolina, the optics were unusual as well. Appointed as district attorney in 2013, Newman has been re-elected twice by convincing margins. He faces re-election in 2022, should be choose to run. On Monday morning, Newman along with two defense lawyers as the defendant in the courtroom where he has tried dozens of cases as the prosecutor for the state.

Valerie Owenby’s father, Oppie Gene Owenby Jr., also told the court that he felt betrayed by Newman because he was not informed about the quickly arranged proceeding arrangement that erased the felony sexual abuse charges against Sapp and allowed him to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of assault on a female. 

“I wanted my daughter to be heard by the court. She has not received justice,” Owenby said. “It made me look at the justice system as a kangaroo court.”

Owenby testified he did not learn of the plea deal in his daughter’s case until he called the District Attorney’s office to check on the status of the case. At that point, it turned out, the case was over.

  Owenby and his daughter testified after Pat Murphy, a deputy counsel at the N.C. State Bar, testified about the evidence he presented to the bar’s Disciplinary Hearing Commission against Newman last November after the Owenbys filed a grievance against him. Murphy said he presented evidence to the commission, which is made up of two lawyers and a non-lawyer, that Owenby and his daughter were not informed of the plea arrangement with Sapp.

The commission also found that Newman lied when he told then District Court Judge Athena Brooks that the Owenbys had been informed of the plea arrangement and did not want to be heard. Newman’s lie to Brooks and his violation of a state law requiring that victims be notified when plea deals are taken in court are serious offenses, Murphy said.

 “The court system has to operate on truthful information," he said. "There is a higher expectation that officers of the court are going to give the court accurate truthful information. I can’t see how that doesn’t have a devasting impact on the administration of justice.”

The special counsel team called its first witness, Superior Court Judge Athena Brooks, and questioned her about the plea agreement in the case of Sapp, the defendant in the Valerie Owenby case. Brooks, at the time a District Court judge, testified that it was unusual for serious felony charges to come before her.

"I remember asking, Is the victim OK with that? and words were said that they didn't want to be there, some words like that," Brooks said. "Mr. Newman gave an indication that the victim did not want to be heard and we took the plea."

"I have never written a sentence like that before," she said when asked if she usually made a note on the plea agreement on a victim's presence. She put the statement in the record because "it was a reduction from a serious felony to a misdemeanor. ... The elected district attorney was involved." Brooks said she would not have accepted the plea had she known that a victim who wanted to testify had not been notified of the plea hearing.

 Newman also testified Monday. Under questioning from Ike Northrup, an Asheville attorney also on the special counsel’s team, Newman said he wasn’t intentionally trying to misrepresent anything to Judge Brooks.

  He said he fought the state bar case against him as hard as he could.

"They were tough on me but I did feel I had a duty to stand up for what I did and for my office," Newman said of the state Bar hearing. "I had to stand my ground and I did. ... I'm sorry that the panel found against me. I didn't lie to anyone ..."

"One thing that's missed in all of this is that I immediately went to the defense counsel and was very open about the situation we had," he said. "I think I made the right decision" in accepting the reduced charge plea. Northrup asked Newman about a quote in the Transylvania Times that the Bar decision was politically motivated. Newman said "I wouldn't have said that. Northrup asked Newman whether he believed, as he told a reporter, that the Bar case against him was politically motivated.

"I believe so, the timing of the complaint and the extent was gone through by the state Bar," he said. "This thing drug on for three years before we actually had a hearing." He added that he provided everything the Bar asked for. "They were deceptive with me. But the joke's on me, they're building a case against me. ... I'm not pleased that it went as far as it went. I'm angry about it, to be honest. It impugns my character."

His initial response to the 2019 Bar complaint contained "incorrect statements" because he answered quickly without doing detailed research on a matter that happened four years earlier.

"I relied too much on my memory" but did not knowingly make false statements either to the Bar or to Judge Brooks, he said. "My first response was inadequate" and contained statements from memory. "I didn't address the initial inquiry as thoroughly as I should have. I think I was drawing too much on my memory."

  Murphy testified politics played no role in the bar’s decision to present Newman’s case to the disciplinary commission or its decision to stay the suspension of his law license.

Under cross examination by Newman attorney David Freedman, Murphy acknowledged that the commission stopped short of barring Newman from practicing law. In an objection to a question about whether the commission stopped him from being District Attorney, Cooney noted that the bar dealt with the issue surrounding Newman’s law license. The hearing now under way will determine if he remains District Attorney, Cooney added.

Mary Winstead, another deputy counsel with the state bar who is now retired, testified she handled a grievance filed against Newman concerning a client referred to only as CB in the courtroom. In that case, the bar issued Newman a reprimand after finding he had a conflict of interest when he, as District Attorney, dismissed drug charges CB had pleaded guilty to when Newman represented him as a defense attorney before he became District Attorney.

Newman told the bar when the grievance was filed against him that he did not remember that he had represented CB. In court on Monday, he testified he knew he had represented CB. But that he didn’t see it as a conflict of interest because he did not do anything as District Attorney to hurt CB.

On the subject of what the Bar's disciplinary hearing commission called false and misleading statements in his response to the Bar's inquiry, Newman attributed the statements to his faulty memory. His initial response to the 2019 Bar complaint contained "incorrect statements" because he answered quickly without doing detailed research on a matter that had transpired four years earlier.

"I relied too much on my memory" but did not knowingly make false statements either to the Bar or to Judge Brooks, he said. "My first response was inadequate" and contained statements from memory. "I didn't address the initial inquiry as thoroughly as I should have. I think I was drawing too much on my memory."

On the Schalow case, Newman described the victim as having been beaten "from head to toe" and had sustained serious internal injuries. Newman filed an attempted first-degree murder indictment and later dropped that charge when Superior Court Judge Mark Powell told him the offense did not rise to that level. Powell declared a mistrial and Newman filed a second, corrected indictment, this time including the element of malice aforethought. At the second trial, witnesses included the victim, Erin Schalow, investigators and medical personnel who treated her. "She was close to dying" from her injuries, Newman said. "He had beaten her in the head a number of times and he had beaten her about her body," so that she had suffered a "ruptured spleen, a broken wrist, broken bones ..."

A jury convicted Schalow and a judge sentenced him to prison. When Schalow won an appeal that overturned his conviction on double jeopardy grounds, Newman filed a third indictment, this time for assault. "In this case we did feel like we had other crimes from other periods of time that we could address," he said. In a pretrial motion, Schalow's defense lawyer again raised the double jeopardy issue and made the charge of vindictive prosecution. Although a state Court of Appeals vacated Schalow's conviction, he remains in jail because the case is on appeal at the N.C. Supreme Court.

The hearing is scheduled to resume at 9:30 a.m. today.