Jail officer suspended before

An inmate remains in a coma. Public records are partly released after The N&O threatens to sue.

Staff writersMay 29, 2011 

— A detention officer who was involved in an altercation with an inmate at the Wake County jail last month that left the inmate in a coma had been given a disciplinary suspension six months earlier for reasons the sheriff would not explain.

Sheriff Donnie Harrison provided the information about Master Detention Officer Michael Hayes' suspension by mail to Amanda Martin, an attorney for The News & Observer, on Friday afternoon after The N&O said it would sue to get the records. The suspension occurred Oct. 7, 2010. Hayes was suspended without pay, according to the letter.

The letter does not say why Hayes was suspended, nor does it indicate the length of his suspension. Harrison, in the letter, also said he would not report any previous disciplinary suspensions or promotions Hayes might have previously received.

Harrison said such information is "under dispute" as a public record under the new personnel law, which makes salary and position histories of state and local employees public record. Harrison said releasing records created before the law's start date - Oct. 1, 2010 - could present legal problems for his department unless Hayes gives permission for their release.

That contradicts the opinion of the state Attorney General's Office, which found the new law made all suspensions, demotions and dismissals public, and requires the disclosure of all suspensions and demotions for disciplinary reasons.

Hayes, who has been employed with the sheriff's office since 2006, became the subject of a State Bureau of Investigation probe after a confrontation April 3 with an inmate, Joshua Wrenn of Benson. Wrenn, 29, was accused of punching his wife, Jessica Wrenn, March 25 and arrested a week later.

The altercation occurred a few hours after Wrenn was admitted to the jail. It left him unconscious and no longer breathing, according to the jail captain who called for medical assistance. The sheriff has declined to provide other details because of the SBI investigation.

Wrenn was initially taken to WakeMed Raleigh Campus, where he was evaluated by doctors. In the days that followed, he suffered three strokes, including one that has left his right side paralyzed, said his mother, Kathy Treadway. He was transferred April 13 to an intensive care unit at Duke Hospital.

Wrenn was unable to breathe on his own and had to rely on a ventilator. He remains at Duke Hospital, and his condition remains unchanged, his stepfather, Doug Treadway, said Friday. "He's not doing too good," his stepfather said.

Hayes remained on active duty while the SBI reviewed the incident. Reached Saturday night at the jail, Hayes declined to comment.

Harrison previously said he would not provide any personnel information regarding Hayes because of the SBI investigation. That prompted Martin to seek the records release two weeks ago.

In his letter, Harrison said it was his normal practice to withhold personnel information while an SBI investigation was pending. Last week, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said that he did not want the personnel information released while SBI agents were interviewing witnesses.

"If you write a story and it has some facts in there that might impact what somebody would or wouldn't say," Willoughby said, "or their view of the facts may change because of your story."

He said he did not think the release of Hayes' personnel information would persuade someone to provide new facts that could help the investigation.

The law pertaining to criminal investigations does not allow an official to withhold public records. "Use of a public record in connection with a criminal investigation or the gathering of criminal intelligence shall not affect its status as a public record," it says.

Avoiding the suit

On Wednesday, The N&O told the county it would sue to obtain the records if they weren't produced. That prompted Willoughby to ask the SBI to complete the witness interviews to avoid legal action. "We tried to do it in such a way that we would not be an impediment to whatever it is that you all are seeking," Willoughby said.

The interviews were done by Thursday afternoon, and Willoughby then called Harrison to tell him it was OK to release the personnel information. But Harrison refused to give it to a reporter that afternoon. He said that since The N&O had a lawyer involved, the information would be mailed to the lawyer. The public records law does not allow officials to withhold records that are immediately available.

Martin, in an emailed statement, elaborated on the newspaper's records request:

"Law enforcement officers are vested with enormous responsibility and power, whether it is patrolling the streets with guns, executing warrants to search private homes, or dealing with incarcerated individuals. Our system is designed to give the public oversight, including knowing some minimal amount of information about those who exercise that power. And when the sheriff flouts the law, it should concern everyone."

Willoughby said he could not say more about the case because the investigation is not complete and because he hasn't reviewed the information so far produced. He previously said Wrenn suffered an external head injury from the altercation.

SBI investigations are not public record, although district attorneys have the discretion to disclose them. Willoughby said in cases such as these, he would give the family of the injured person access to the report.

dkane@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4861

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