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Mystery motion delays plan to set date for Stroupe's capital murder trial


A sealed defense motion so “sensitive” that it could not be argued in open court postponed a hearing in the trial of Phillip Michael "Mike" Stroupe II, the latest snag in the high-profile capital murder case that has been beset by delays.


Stroupe, a convicted felon accused of the July 2017 murder of Thomas A. “Tommy” Bryson, has been awaiting trial in Central Prison in Raleigh except for when authorities have carried him back to Hendersonville for court appearances. Originally set on what the defense argued was a recklessly fast timeframe of July 2018, one year after the murder, the trial was postponed to January 2019 and then delayed again to May 2019. The May trial date blew up when Superior Court Judge W. Robert Bell removed Judicial District 29B Public Defender Paul Welch from the case, for reasons that have never been made public. Stroupe’s new attorney, Mark Melrose of Waynesville, is assisted by co-counsel Sarah Ziomek of Forest City, a carryover from Stroupe’s original defense team.
On Friday morning, as he was led into the courtroom in handcuffs, Stroupe, 41, smiled at family members who were seated on a front bench on the defense side of the courtroom. Deputies removed Stroupe's handcuffs as he stood at the defense table alongside Ziomek and Melrose. After District Attorney Greg Newman made an argument on a pretrial discovery matter, Melrose stood to announce a brand new motion, which had not yet been filed, nor seen by the judge or prosecutors.
The motion involves “a matter of a very sensitive nature that is highly prejudicial potentially” to his client, Melrose said. He could not “argue it publicly," he said, "because it would materially prejudice Mr. Stroupe’s rights.” The defense attorney asked for a private hearing in the judge’s chambers to further explain the motion and defend his request to postpone Friday’s hearing, which had been intended originally to clear the deck of any pending matters and set a trial date.
Judge Bell agreed to the closed-door session, allowing only Newman, Melrose, a court reporter and the defendant into the jury waiting room. Upon their return 25 minutes later, Bell announced his decision.
“The defense has made two motions and has convinced me they should be heard in a closed session of court,” he said. Clarifying that a row of people seated on a second row center bench were family members of Tommy Bryson, Bell gently explained that delays happen in capital cases, for reasons that are unclear at the time. The judge has tried many murder cases, he told the family, which included sons Joey and Rick Bryson and their wives and Tommy’s widow, Lynn, and each case “takes on a life of its own. It’s a legitimate motion and it needs to be heard and a decision needs to be made.” The motion will remain sealed, he said, “until such time as an appellate court rules” on whether it can be made public. “I appreciate your indulgence and patience,” he said, addressing the family members directly. “I’m sure there will be a time when all this makes sense to you.”
For now, the family was forced to leave the courtroom with nothing close to a resolution, or even a trial date or for that matter a clue about what the accused murderer’s attorneys are requesting of the judge. Instead of answers, they had new questions.
Judge Bell recessed the hearing to give time for Newman and his team to review Melrose’s motion and to figure out when they could all reconvene.
After Bell gaveled the hearing to a close, Newman strode up to the Bryson family members to explain what had happened and describe the next step. Speaking to a farm-business gathering back in the summer, Newman had made reference to the unpredictable nature of capital murder cases.
“We’re looking at an October hearing and at that time we will probably set a trial date,” Newman said then. “We’re looking at tentatively next year, next spring, if things go smoothly. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.” They didn’t go smoothly, or at least not as expected, in  Courtroom 2 of the Grove Street Courthouse on Friday.
“In the course of most death penalty eligible trials, we’re still barely over two years from the actual incident date,” Newman told WLOS-TV. “So I guess considering the timetable of most of these cases we’re moving fairly quickly.”