DA Woodall Says NC Death Penalty System Needs Reform

Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall has announced that if a conviction is brought against the two men charged with murdering 59-year-old UNC professor Feng Liu in July, he will not be seeking the death penalty.

Woodall says, “I don’t think, at this time, North Carolina has an effective death penalty.”

He says he is not opposed to the death penalty, but adds that the entire system is not in a functioning state.

“I do not have any moral opposition to the death penalty,” he says. “I think there are circumstances – extremely rare circumstances – where it is warranted. I don’t think that the law, as we have it presently in North Carolina, is sufficient to ensure that we carry it out properly.”

Woodall adds that in a case where capital punishment is on the table, there are many factors that go into that decision.

Botched executions in other states have sparked a nationwide review of the death penalty system. Earlier this year in North Carolina, two half brothers were exonerated on murder charges and released from prison after nearly 30 years behind bars. Both men were originally sentenced to death; one had his sentenced reduced to life in prison.

Woodall says that in many cases a term of life in prison can bring a victim’s family more closure than a death sentence.

“It would take decades for the sentence to be carried out,” he says, “if it were ever carried out. And victims’ families have to deal with it for decades.”

If North Carolina is going to continue to be a state that has the death penalty as an option for prosecutors, Woodall says the entire system needs to be reformed. He cites an example from the federal system that could serve as a model for North Carolina.

“For a federal prosecutor to pursue the death penalty,” he says, “they have to go before a federal panel that looks at the evidence. The defense actually gets to present a short version of their case. And that panel determines if it’s a death-penalty case.”

Woodall says this provides more consistency in the process, adding that he believes that is one thing missing in North Carolina.

“I believe it’s very important for an elected prosecutor to have a great deal of discretion to determine how the law is going to be enforced in his or her jurisdiction,” he says. “But I do think if you’re going to have the death penalty – the ultimate punishment – there has to be some way to ensure that it is going to be used consistently throughout the state.”

Juries issued three death sentences in North Carolina in 2014 – in 2013 juries returned one death sentence and none were returned in 2012, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The state of North Carolina has not executed a prisoner since 2006.


Chatham Deputies Arrest Man Allegedly Linked To Drug Deaths

The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office has arrested a man in connection with three drug overdose deaths this weekend.

38-year old Edwin Maurice Pennix, of  Colonial Park Road, Siler City, was charged with multiple felonies, including selling and delivering cocaine and marijuana. He was on probation at the time of the arrest for prior drug charges and for fleeing arrest.

Edwin Maurice Pennix

Edwin Maurice Pennix

Authorities say he’s involved in the sale of cocaine laced with the narcotic painkiller Fentanyl. The mixture killed three and sickened 11 others in Chatham County on Saturday.

Pennix is being held in the Chatham County Jail under a $260,000 secured bond.

The Sheriff’s Office is still investigating the incident, along with the State Bureau of Investigations and the Drug Enforcement Administration. If you have any information, you can contact the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Unit at 919-545-8139.


Duke Energy Hopes To Send Coal Ash To Chatham And Lee Counties

Coal ash could be coming to Chatham and Lee Counties, as Duke Energy looks to use old clay mines for disposal.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources received a pair of applications last week from Green Meadow LLC, a company seeking permission to move coal ash stored at power facilities to fill in open-pit clay mines.

One mine is in Chatham County near Moncure, the other is in Lee County near Sanford.

The permits would allow Duke Energy to relocate coal ash from power plants in Mount Holly and Wilmington and use it to fill the open pits after installing liners to prevent groundwater contamination.

Green Meadow LLC hopes to begin work on the structural fill projects at both mine sites in early 2015.

However, a public hearing must be held first, and the permits must be reviewed by the Division of Waste Management before work can begin.

In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency will likely roll out new federal guidelines for coal ash disposal in December, which could have an impact on the application.

Ultimately, Duke Energy hopes to relocate 3 million tons of coal ash to Lee and Chatham counties.


Chatham Co. Health Dept Reports Whooping Cough On The Rise

Chatham County officials say they have seen a recent uptick in cases of whooping cough among adolescents and younger children.

Two students at Northwood High School were diagnosed with the disease in mid-October. Health Department workers and the Chatham County School system are trying to identify other students who may have been exposed.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is easily spread by coughing or sneezing. It causes a severe cough that can last for weeks or months. It’s especially dangerous for infants and those with weakened immune systems.

Spread of the disease is easily prevented by vaccination. If you need a booster shot, you can contact the Chatham County Health Department or the Orange County Health Department.


Chatham Neighbors to Range 2A: ‘Shut it Down’ or We’ll Sue

Neighbors of a gun range that opened just outside of Pittsboro in late May have an unwavering message for the owner:

Take it somewhere else, or we’re going to court.

“We are not going away,” says Tony Gaeta. “The only thing he can do is shut it down.”

Gaeta is a corporate securities attorney with the Wyrick Robbins Yates & Ponton law firm in Raleigh, and an adjunct professor at the UNC School of Law.

He’s also an unhappy neighbor of Range 2A, which opened in late May on 71 acres owned by Mark Atkeson.

Gaeta has lived on his 30-acre property for eight years. Before that, he lived on a two-and-a-half-acre horse farm on the other side of Jordan Lake on Hwy. 751, near Apex Nurseries.

Then the Streets of Southpoint mall opened in South Durham. One of its access roads, Renaissance Parkway, is right off 751 near an I-40 ramp.

Needless to say, traffic on Gaeta’s stretch of 751 picked up quite a bit.

“You couldn’t sit in your backyard and have any peace and quiet,” he says. “So, for a couple of years, I looked for a farm deeper and further away.”

The dream property he found in the Dry Creek Valley subdivision was heavily wooded. He built his new horse farm on what was, for him, the most tranquil place on Earth.

“And then the range came, and destroyed all that with their gunfire,” he says.

Range 2A is a membership club with two instructors from D-Co, a shooting range in Southern Pines. D-Co offers tactical training for military and law enforcement personnel, as well as civilians.

Soon after it opened on Silk Hope Gum Springs Road, Range 2A drew noise-and-safety complaints from Siglinda Scarpa, owner of the Goathouse Refuge, a cat sanctuary that borders Atkeson’s property.

The range was shut down, at least temporarily, in early July. Results of a controlled shooting test by the Chatham County Sheriff’s Department showed that decibel levels registered above 60, in violation of local ordinances.

Atkeson told WCHL in mid-August that he’s working on adding soundproofing features, in hopes of re-opening this fall.

But his problems don’t end there. Atkeson has also been cited for a storm water mitigation violation by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The border of Gaeta’s property is one side of the Goathouse Refuge, and Range 2A is on the other. Gaeta says he was present at the Goathouse for the controlled shooting test, and scoffs at the idea that it even represents the noise that came from Range 2A while it was open.

He describes it as high-powered rifles being shot at all times of the day and night, from eight shooting bays, seven days a week.

Gaeta recently co-authored a petition to Chatham County, asking for a permanent halt to the activities at Range 2A. The petition has more than 130 signatures from neighbors living a mile or less from the Range.

He told Chatham County Commissioners at a recent meeting that it’s not about guns. He’s a gun owner himself, and a veteran who served in Vietnam.

Gaeta says that he and other neighbors want to maintain the peaceful, safe environment they moved into, and not see their property values degraded by Range 2A.

Mediation between the opposing parties has been suggested by the Chatham County Sheriff’s Department, and that could happen later this month.

Atkeson, the owner of Range 2A, told WCHL recently that he was all for it.

“I would happily go to mediation,” Atkeson said. “I would love to sit down and try to explain what it is I’m doing, and listen to their concerns and try to address them. Because I feel there’s a great deal of misinformation.”

Gaeta says he’s part of a group of neighbors willing to speak with Atkeson, but added that Atkeson probably won’t like what they’re going to say.

“Shut down the range,” says Gaeta. “This is the wrong place for it.”

He adds that even if Atkeson manages to bring the noise level below 60, and to resolve environmental issues with NCDENR, it’s not over. He and some neighbors have hired an attorney, and they’re ready to move forward.

“Our lawyer tells us we still have a case under the North Carolina Nuisance Law,” says Gaeta, “and we still intend to file a civil action against him to shut it down.”


Chatham Residents: Check Your DMV Bills

Chatham County residents should double check your vehicle registration renewal before sticking the check in the mail.

Some residents have received tax bills citing the incorrect county rate. Orange County’s property tax rate is 87.8 cents; Durham County’s is 79.31 cents. However, Chatham County’s rate is much lower at 62.19 cents.

Not only are you overpaying if the bill is incorrect, but the funds are going to the incorrect county.

If you received a bill from the Division of Motor Vehicles that is incorrect, you can call the DMV at 919-814-1779.


Durham Tech’s New Look; “Free Movies Under The Stars”; Chatham Tax Bills

School’s back in session and Durham Tech has a new brand!

The school unveiled a new branding campaign earlier this month – complete with a new logo that adds the color orange, in honor of its Orange County campus.

For more information on the new campaign – and more information on the college itself – visit DurhamTech.edu.

Head to the Wallace Parking Deck on Rosemary Street on Friday, August 15, for the latest installment of “Free Movies Under The Stars”!

This Friday’s movie is the Coen brothers classic “Raising Arizona.” The movie gets underway at 8:30 p.m. It’s free and open to the public, and free popcorn will be served as well.

If you’re a Chatham County resident, start looking for your 2014 property tax bill – county officials say they should be arriving in the mail right around now.

Tax Administrator Frances Wilson says it’s important to carefully review your tax bill after receiving it, to make sure there aren’t any problems.

January 5 is the payment deadline. For more information on payment options, visit ChathamNC.org.


Fracking Concerns Blue Ridge Environmental Defense, NC Citizens

With the rising concern of the dangers associated with fracking, many North Carolinians are deeply uncertain about what lies ahead for the state relying on the questionable method of obtaining fuel and energy.

WCHL’s Ron Stutts spoke with Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, and with Martha Girolami, a citizen of northeast Chatham County that has found out recently that she lives atop of what is known as the “Triassic basin,” which is one of the potential locations that fracking companies may take advantage of.

The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League is a “regional, community-based, non-profit environmental organization.” They focus on issues including “industry’s dependence on toxic chemicals, utilities’ refusal to adopt sound energy alternatives, industrial development and highway construction at the expense of public health, intensive livestock operations’ effects on agriculture and the environment, and huge waste dumps.”

When asked what she personally found so dangerous about fracking, Girolami says that her two biggest issues come from the health risks and how quickly the practice of fracking is being accepted despite a lack of real preparatory analysis.

“Fracking so bad because it’s so polluting,” says Girolami. “It’s so polluting to ground water, surface water, air, air health, and it’s been so rushed. So rushed we haven’t done a health study, we’ve done no air rules. The Energy and Mining Commission has been meeting for two years, but there are big gaps in the rules they put together.”

Vick reminds of the recent legislation created that states it is a misdemeanor to disclose what chemicals are used for digging. She says that this is not how the community should be treated when it comes to this form of resource gathering.

“The community has the right to know what is being injected into the ground under their feet,” says Vick. “Our organization just passed a resolution on chemical disclosure that we hope to share with other folks, but my feeling is that the reason they don’t want people to know is because of that potential liability.”

***Listen to the full interview here***

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

For more on the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, click here.


Fraud Charge Against Nyang’oro Dropped

A prosecutor says he has dismissed a felony fraud charge against a former North Carolina professor linked to a scandal involving academics and athletics.

In a statement Thursday, Orange County district attorney Jim Woodall said he dropped the charge after Julius Nyang’oro cooperated with the criminal investigation and an independent probe into fraud in the department where Nyang’oro served as chairman.

A grand jury indicted Nyang’oro in December for obtaining property by false pretenses. He was charged with receiving $12,000 to teach a summer 2011 lecture class that did not meet. The class, filled with football players, was treated as an independent study requiring a research paper.

Former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein is leading the independent probe into the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies department.


Biking! Drinking! Recycling! Driving! Housing! Reporting! Dancing!

The newest restaurant in Chapel Hill’s 140 West is celebrating its grand opening on Thursday, March 20.

Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom will mark its grand opening on March 20 with a ribbon cutting at 11:00 a.m.

Old Chicago got its start back in 1976 – and to honor that, the company will offer free pizza for a year for the first 76 customers in line. There will also be a free throw shooting contest outside on the 140 West plaza – and Old Chicago will donate $76 to Farmer Foodshare for each free throw that gets made. (Show the Tar Heels how it’s done!)

Listen to Aaron Keck’s conversation on the Wednesday afternoon news with Old Chicago’s Chris Beckler.

Click here.


For the next two months, the Town of Chapel Hill is inviting you to give your feedback on the latest draft of its Bike Plan.

You can find the plan and a comment form online at TownOfChapelHill.org/bikeplan.

There will be a public forum to discuss the plan on Monday, April 28.


Chatham County officials say drinking water in some parts of the county might have a musty taste and odor for the next month or so – but it’s still safe to drink.

Chatham Water Utilities found higher-than-usual levels of compounds in water recently sampled from Jordan Lake Reservoir, causing the slight difference in taste. Director Leonard McBryde says this is a seasonal issue that’s “not uncommon for water systems that draw raw water from lakes.”

Since it’s seasonal, county officials say it should only last about a month – but in the meantime, residents can minimize the taste difference by refrigerating water in a pitcher, or using a carbon filter.


Orange County will be holding a second public hearing in April to discuss the proposed new solid waste service tax district for unincorporated areas of the county.

The district is being proposed as a way to continue funding the county’s recycling program. The program had been funded with an annual fee attached to residents’ property tax bill, but that fee has been discontinued.

The public hearing takes place on Tuesday, April 1, also at 6:00 p.m. at the Social Services Center at Hillsborough Commons on Mayo Street in Hillsborough.


Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s three high schools are holding “mock crash” events this spring to raise awareness of the dangers of impaired and distracted driving.

The events will begin with an assembly, followed by a crash reenactment in the footbal stadium. A UNC Air Care helicopter will land in the stadium as well, to simulate transport of an injured victim.

The mock crashes will take place at Carrboro High School on Friday, March 21; at East Chapel Hill High on Wednesday, April 9; and at Chapel Hill High on Friday, May 2 during the school day.


The Greater Chapel Hill Association of REALTORS has earned a grant to promote affordable housing in the local community.

The grant comes from the Housing Opportunity Program of the National Association of REALTORS; the Greater Chapel Hill branch will use the funds to produce a housing expo in Chatham County.


Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Amanda Bennett will be on campus Thursday, March 20, speaking as part of UNC’s Women in Media Leadership Series.

Working for the Wall Street Journal, Bennett won the Pulitzer in 1997 for her coverage of the AIDS crisis, and a second Pulitzer with The Oregonian for an expose of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. She’s also the author of “The Cost of Hope,” a book about confronting death in the context of the U.S. healthcare system.

Bennett’s talk will begin at 5:30 p.m. on March 20 in the Freedom Forum Conference Center in Carroll Hall. It’s free and open to the public.


This weekend, a nationally-recognized dance choreographer will be in the Triangle to support arts education in local schools.

Jacques d’Amboise is the principal dancer-choreographer for the NYC Ballet. He’s in town from Thursday through Saturday, March 20-22, to support NC Arts in Action – which provides in-school and afterschool dance programs for kids, based on a model d’Amboise developed back in the 1970s.

On Thursday d’Amboise will be in Chapel Hill, meeting with fourth-graders at Northside Elementary School.