A1 A1
Suspect in New Year's Day triple slaying makes first court appearance; police have also connected Brittany Christina McKinney to hit-and-run accident that day

GREENSBORO — A 28-year-old woman who could face the death penalty in a New Year’s Day triple homicide made her first court appearance Thursday.

Brittany Christina McKinney, her slight frame clad in a red jumpsuit, stood emotionless as the charges were read against her.

McKinney is charged with the shooting deaths of 61-year-old Jerry Griffin, 10-year-old Mkenzie Denise McKinney, a student at Simkins Elementary, and 2-year-old Serenity Taliem Rose.

McKinney also faces charges of hit-and-run involving a 2011 GMC truck belonging to Griffin minutes after the bodies were found.

McKinney, whose eyes darted around the courtroom at times, is being held without bail on the homicide charges and has a Feb. 11 next court date.

During the proceeding, Public Defender Wayne Baucino, a veteran of capital murder cases, stepped forward to say he would be representing McKinney, whose only criminal record is a traffic infraction in Onslow County, officials say.

There were more questions Thursday than answers regarding the killings. Many details, including a motive, the relationships of the victims to McKinney and what led up to violence, remained unclear after Thursday’s proceeding.

Police found the bodies about 11:15 a.m. Wednesday in a house nestled in a southeast Greensboro subdivision.

Officers had been responding to a welfare check at a home in the 3600 Block of Sweet Birch Drive when they found the three gunshot victims, Assistant District Attorney Steve Cole told presiding District Court Judge Tonia Cutchins.

Earlier, Ron Glenn, a spokesman for the police department, had told the News & Record that two victims were found dead at the scene and the third, who later died, was taken to the hospital. Glenn would not say which victim was taken to the hospital.

During Thursday’s court proceedings, Cole said McKinney had been apprehended at a convenience store.

Glenn said police have also connected McKinney to a hit-and-run accident that took place at about 11:30 a.m. — shortly after the bodies were found — at East Wendover Avenue and North English Street involving a 2011 GMC vehicle belonging to Griffin.

According to the police report, the GMC was traveling west in the center lane of Wendover Ave., when it left the road and hit a utility pole before colliding with another vehicle. Witnesses told police the driver got out of the car and left the scene on foot. The driver of the other vehicle complained of injuries, the report said.

Glenn also said that McKinney is related of each of the victims, though police were not ready to release information about how she is related to them. Police also are not discussing a possible motive at this time, although Glenn said it does not appear that anyone else was involved.

Cole also did not mention a motive in court.

Glenn confirmed that Brittany McKinney lived at the residence. He declined to discuss whether the victims also lived there. White Pages lists a Jerry Griffin at 3627 Sweet Birch Drive.

Janson Silvers, a spokesman for Guilford County Schools, confirmed that Mkenzie was a student at Simkins Elementary. He said the district plans to have grief and crisis teams on site on Monday when students return to school after the winter break.

The triple slaying on the first day of the year follows a record-tying year for homicides. The city saw 44 killings in 2019, which tied the record set in 2017 for homicides in a single year.

Census catches up to technology as it seeks workers and hopes for respondents in 2020

Need a part-time job to help pay off those holiday bills?

The U.S. Census Bureau is hiring hundreds of thousands of people nationwide to assist with the 2020 Census count. And, in Guilford County, it’s paying $16 an hour for census takers.

Every 10 years, the Census Bureau counts everyone who lives in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands)

But the march of technology makes this year’s count a bit different.

This year, residents are being asked to submit their information either by computer or by using their smartphone, although information will still be accepted by mail. Respondents can also call a toll-free number for assistance or to give their information to a call-center representative.

“For the first time in census history, the decennial census primary method to respond will be online,” spokeswoman Lindy Studds said in an email.

“Historically, residents would receive a paper questionnaire that they would complete and mail back in,” she said.

Required by the U.S. Constitution, census data is important. The statistics are used by local, state and federal lawmakers in determining how more than $675 billion in federal funds will be spent annually. That money pays for such things as roads and bridges, hospitals and health care clinics, emergency response services and education.

The census also is used to determine the number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives and provides data for redrawing legislative districts.

And, as the 2020 Census Operational Plan points out, census data is playing an increasingly important role in U.S. commerce and the economy.

Businesses are more often relying on the data to look at population-growth trends and income levels when making decisions about whether or where to locate restaurants or stores. Similarly, real estate investors look at the figures to measure the demand for housing and predict future needs.

From March 12 through 20, most households will receive a mailing asking them to respond online to the 2020 census. The questionnaire takes about 10 minutes to answer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website.

For those who do not respond, census takers will go door-to-door beginning in May, Studds said. However, the Census Bureau plans to reduce these in-person visits by using data available from government administrative records and third-party sources. Such data, according to the census website, can be used to predict vacant households and determine the best time of day to visit a particular household.

For households that cannot be interviewed after multiple attempts, the census will count and provide characteristics for the people in the household using existing “high-quality data from trusted sources,” according to the 2020 Census Operational Plan.

Those sources include the 2010 census, U.S. postal service, Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the American Community Survey that is conducted annually by the census.

Most fieldworkers also will use mobile devices for collecting the data, and optimal travel routes will be determined to increase productivity.

And what tech-savvy organization would miss out on social media opportunities? Census officials are using YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to encourage people to fill out the census, tailoring advertisements to specific audiences. And it’s also warning people to watch out for scams such as phishing emails, which often direct the recipient to a fake website that looks legitimate.

Census workers will not ask respondents for Social Security, bank account or credit card numbers and will not ask for money or donations.

The agency has set up an email — rumors@census.gov — for people to report false rumors, as well.

Officials also are partnering with community organizations and businesses to spread the word about the importance of being counted in the census. Efforts include helping residents respond to the census at libraries and other community centers, and hosting events at community, recreation and faith-based organizations.

The 2020 Census data will be processed and sent to the president (for congressional apportionment) by Dec. 31, and to the states (for redistricting) by April 1, 2021. The public will be able to see the census results beginning in 2021.

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Awaited vaping policy: Stop making and selling most e-cigarette flavors, FDA orders. Page A7

Duke Energy and challengers reach settlement in 'historic' coal ash cleanup that includes Belews Creek Steam Station

Duke Energy, state regulators, and environmental and community groups have reached a massive settlement agreement requiring that most of the utility’s submerged coal ash be disposed of in lined landfills.

The agreement means more than 76 million tons of coal ash now stored under water in basins will be excavated and buried in landfills, state officials said.

The settlement directly affects Belews Creek Steam Station, northwest of Greensboro in Stokes County, and five other active and former coal-fired plants in other parts of North Carolina where disposal methods had been in dispute.

State environmental officials hailed the pact as securing “the nation’s largest coal ash excavation of nearly 80 million tons.”

“North Carolina communities have lived with the threat of coal ash pollution for too long,” said Michael Regan, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Quality. “They can now be certain that the cleanup of the last coal ash impoundments in our state will begin this year.”

The decision does not affect the former, now-demolished Dan River Steam Station near Eden, where Duke Energy already has largely completed previously agreed-upon landfill disposal of long submerged ash.

Duke Energy had filed an appeal with the state Office of Administrative Hearings last year after DEQ regulators rejected the utility’s proposal to use a “cap-in-place” technique that would have left some of the ash in place at Belews Creek and several other North Carolina sites.

The utility had sought to cover stored ash at those sites under impervious caps the utility contended were just as safe as landfill disposal.

The agreement also promises to settle separate lawsuits by environmental and community groups that were under way in state Superior and federal court systems.

Environmental and community groups that signed onto the agreement included Appalachian Voices, the Stokes County Branch of the NAACP, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, the Sierra Club, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Roanoke River Basin Association.

They were represented by the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center, which praised the agreement for its “historic” potential.

“The agreement is a historic cleanup of coal ash pollution in North Carolina, and the Department of Environmental Quality and community groups throughout the state have provided essential leadership in obtaining it,” said Frank Holleman, senior SELC attorney based in Chapel Hill.

The agreement will save Duke Energy about $1.5 billion. particularly by allowing the utility to leave in place some of the ash that had been buried at coal-fired plants in Catawba and Person counties.

“This agreement significantly reduced the cost to close our coal ash basins in the Carolinas for our customers, while delivering the same environmental benefits as full excavation,” said Stephen De May, Duke Energy’s North Carolina president.

The utility now expects to spend a total of more than $8 billion cleaning up roughly 124 million tons that had been kept at one time in storage ponds near current and former coal-fired plants in North Carolina, company officials said.

Of that amount, Duke Energy said Thursday that it already had spent about $2.4 billion in preliminary work and actual closure efforts at Dan River and other North Carolina sites.

In addition to Belews Creek, other active coal-fired plants with ash basins covered by the settlement include the Allen Steam Station in Gaston County; the Mayo and Roxboro plants in Person County; the Rogers Energy Complex in Rutherford and Cleveland counties; and the Marshall Steam Station in Catawba County.

The 33-page agreement among Duke Energy, state regulators and seven environmental or civic groups specifically addresses each of the six plants where ash disposal had remained at issue.

At Belews Creek near Walnut Cove, the agreement acknowledges that Duke Energy estimates it will take until late 2031 to excavate and take to a lined, on-site landfill all 11.9 million tons of ash stored there in a 270-acre basin.

That’s two years past the closure deadline currently set by state Coal Ash Management Act for low-risk storage basins, but the agreement forecasts that Duke Energy would have the right to seek deadline extensions by petitioning regulators for additional time.

No such petition would be granted to push the mandatory completion date at Belews Creek past Dec. 31, 2034, according to the agreement.

“This paragraph does not constitute a variance for the CAMA deadline for completion of closure,” the agreement says, referring to the 2029 endpoint for closing low-risk ash basins by the state Coal Ash Management Act that is widely known by its CAMA acronym.

Rather, the utility could petition state DEQ for any such delay and the environmental agency could approve or disapprove as it saw fit, according to the settlement agreement.

The N.C. General Assembly adopted CAMA after a February 2014 coal ash spill from a storage basin at the former Dan River Steam Station in Rockingham County spewed contamination for miles downstream.

That incident occurred after a storm water pipe failed under a storage basin that no longer exists, sending an estimated 39,000 tons of waste into the neighboring river.

At Belews Creek, the new agreement requires Duke Energy to “remove or permanently close all pipes currently running through or beneath the ash basin.”

As an alternative to on-site disposal in a lined landfill, the settlement allows Duke Energy to recycle its Belews Creek ash as an ingredient in cement or any other “industrial process at least as environmentally protective.”

The agreement also requires Duke Energy to build a wall or other such structure if needed at Belews Creek to “prevent lateral movement” of submerged ash or that which is already stored in its Pine Hall Road Landfill nearby.

The agreement would enable Duke Energy to leave in place about 100,000 tons of ash buried in that landfill, “which is capped with a geosynthetic cap and has been closed pursuant to (a state permit) and stopped receiving coal ash in 2014.”

The utility also agreed to do additional, extensive monitoring of groundwater and surface water near the Belews Creek plant to ensure neither is being contaminated by any of its activities.

Coal ash contains trace elements of various metals and other constituents that can be harmful to human health when encountered in heavy enough concentrations.

As part of the agreement, Duke Energy sent DEQ detailed closure plans Monday for Belews Creek and the other disputed plants that include “corrective action” plans for each site.

“The public will have an opportunity to comment on the closure plans at public hearings near each of the six sites in February,” DEQ said Thursday in a news release.

Under CAMA, state regulators have four months to take final action on such plans. After getting the go-ahead from DEQ for each plant, the utility would have 60 days to begin work.

At all six sites, the agreement requires Duke Energy to meet water-quality standards within 500 feet of storage areas or before it reaches the next property owner’s land, if that is closer.

With nearly 12 million tons of submerged ash, Belews Creek has the third largest amount to excavate at the six plants covered by the new agreement. Roxboro and Marshall have more at about 16.8 million tons each.

The agreement notes that Duke Energy expects that it can complete the closure process as soon as Dec. 31, 2028, at the Rogers and Mayo plants, but not until late 2035 at the Roxboro facility.

N.C. will appeal ruling that blocked voter photo ID law

RALEIGH — North Carolina will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that blocks the state’s photo identification voting law but not before the March 3 primary, the state Department of Justice said Thursday.

The office of Attorney General Josh Stein said in a news release that he will appeal the decision issued Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs. The judge ruled the ID mandate is tainted by bias that would deter black and Latino residents. The Republican leaders of the state House and Senate had asked Stein, a Democrat, to appeal.

Stein’s release said his office won’t appeal the law in time for the March 3 primary because it would cause confusion. The requirement would have been put into motion in less than two weeks for mail-in absentee voters, who also would have had to provide an ID copy.

The state DOJ won’t go to court to try to require the use of photo identification for the March 3 primary “to avoid further voter confusion in the primary election in which absentee voting begins in just 11 days and to ensure that the primary election proceeds on schedule and is administered in an orderly manner,” the release said.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will review Biggs’ decision once it’s appealed, “but we anticipate that photo identification will not be required to vote in the primary,” the release said.

On Tuesday, Biggs blocked the newest version of North Carolina’s photo ID voting law until a lawsuit filed by the state NAACP and others is resolved. Stein will ask the higher court to allow photo ID until the lawsuit is heard.

In 2013, North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature passed a photo identification voting requirement that a federal appeals court struck down in 2016. Republicans then put a question on the November 2018 ballot to enshrine voter ID in the state constitution, which passed with 55% of the vote.

Lawmakers approved a separate law in December 2018 detailing how to implement that amendment.

The 2016 ruling said photo ID and other voter restrictions were approved with intentional racial discrimination in mind, and Biggs wrote in her ruling that the newest version of the law was no different in that respect.

Legislators received a breakdown of voter behavior by race before passing the first voter identification law and used that data to target African American voters, the court wrote in striking down that law.

The same key lawmakers championed both bills, Biggs wrote. “They need not have had racial data in hand to still have it in mind,” the ruling said.