On Thursday, the Catawba County District Attorney’s office acknowledged a Hickory police officer received an inmate’s mail, including a letter from the prisoner to his attorney.
It’s a development that could have important implications for one of the county’s most high-profile murder cases.
The defendants affected or potentially affected are Greydon Hansen and Dontray Cumberlander.
The two men are charged with murder in the 2017 shootings outside J. McCroskey’s Irish Pub and Grill that left three men dead and another wounded.
Thursday’s hearing concerned outgoing mail from Hansen that the jail copied and sent to Hickory Investigator Kim Craig.
Bill Boughman, the prison administrator at the Burke-Catawba jail, said Hickory police requested the mail.
At least one of those letters was from Hansen to his attorney Lisa Dubs, a communication protected by attorney-client privilege. It was also revealed during the hearing that some of Cumberlander’s mail was mixed in with Hansen’s mail in the box Craig brought to the court.
Judge Karen Eady-Williams ordered jail officials to stop copying and sharing mail from either defendant with law enforcement. The mail in Craig’s box was sealed, and Dubs said she will not be able to examine it at least until the next hearing in the case.
Dubs said no hearing date has been set but she hopes it will be before the end of the year.
However, Dubs said the defense is considering a number of options.
One of those options is asking for the state to take the death penalty off the table. Dubs said capital cases require a high-degree of confidence in the legal process.
“If we don’t have that confidence, and if we get to the point where we feel like this has reduced our confidence or reduced our ability to get a fair verdict, then yeah, that’s the kind of motion we might make,” Dubs said.
Other options include contesting evidence that may have been illegally gathered based on information in the mail, Dubs said.
Assistant District Attorney Mitch Walker said the district attorney’s office did not want to comment because the matter is part of a high-stakes pending case.
What mail can jail officials read?The question of the way jail officials handle inmate mail was a matter of dispute at Thursday’s hearing.
Assistant District Attorney Jamie Adams maintained the law allows prison officers to copy mail that is not protected by attorney-client privilege.
“The jail personnel, they can intercept that mail and they can copy it and they can give it to whomever they choose, and that’s that,” Adams said.
Hickory Deputy City Attorney Arnita Dula echoed Adams’ position on Friday.
“We believe settled case law permits the Hickory Police Department to receive inmates’ mail from jail facilities,” Dula said. “Upon realizing she had received a legal letter in error from the facility, Investigator Craig took appropriate action by immediately contacting the district attorney.”
Dula said the city had no comment on the case beyond that statement. Adams reiterated throughout the hearing that she did not read the mail and did not know the contents of the mail.
Dubs argued the case law requires jail officials to give inmates notice their outgoing mail is not private. However, the jail did not make clear in its inmates instructions that outgoing mail is subject to inspection, Dubs said.
She brought along a copy of the inmate rules for the Burke-Catawba jail.
The rules said that incoming mail would be inspected but did not make a similar statement about outgoing mail.
The rules say that legal mail sent to an inmate is to be opened in the presence of the inmate.
Dubs said her understanding is that the legal mail is opened to check for contraband material but is not read by the prison officers. Dubs also said the jail is allowed to inspect mail to maintain safety or order of people at the jail but not to aid in investigations.
Boughman said he believed the request in this case was the only one he had received from Hickory police.
When asked if other law enforcement agencies had requested inmate mail, Boughman said he could not speak on that matter.
Boughman said he would abide by the ruling concerning Hansen and Cumberlander but that it would not affect the way the prison handles inmate mail in other cases.
“I’m just going to go by the ruling involving these two for the time being,” Boughman said.