Local prosecutors were pleased by a recently published N.C. Court of Appeals opinion upholding a lengthy contempt sentence given to a Surry County defendant last year.
Presiding Judge R. Stuart Albright had ordered Michael Andrew Burrow to serve six 30-day sentences in a row — one for each F-bomb Burrow dropped in the courtroom — during a May 2015 criminal trial.
“That outburst was probably the most disrespect I’ve ever seen in a defendant in contempt of court,” recalled Quentin Harris, the assistant district attorney who tried the case.
“He was just asking for it. He was cussing the judge, the jury, me,” Harris said. “At one point the judge said ‘what did you say?’, he (Burrow) just repeated it right back.”
The judge, who reportedly had the court reporter comb through the record and count the expletives, didn’t find Burrow in contempt for the repetition.
But he did for the other utterances, ordering the defendant to return to court the following morning for sentencing.
“Everyone was in there to see what he (Albright) was going to do,” Harris said, and the subsequent appeal continued to hold the interest of the local legal community.
“There was a lot of talk about whether the Court of Appeals was going to overrule him,” the prosecutor explained. “There was no established precedent for it. No one really knew.”
The higher court was interested too.
“While trial courts in this state have sentenced contemnors to consecutive sentences, this Court has never been asked to decide if such practice is permissible,” the August 2 opinion states.
The defendant had argued in the appeal that criminal contempt should be classified as a class 3 misdemeanor, noting that N.C. statute does not allow consecutive sentences to be imposed for class 3 misdemeanors.
The court disagreed with that classification, citing various case law that described contempt as its own type of offense.
And so consecutive sentences are officially fair game for contempt findings in North Carolina.
“The judge did what he thought he had the power to do and the Court of Appeals said he was right,” said Harris, noting that that he thought the decision made sense.
“The judge has to have the authority to maintain order in the courtroom,” he said.
“That’s very critical to what we do.”
Other aspects appealed
Burrow, of Lexington, had been accused of trying to break into an Ararat Road residence in April 2014.
A female victim was at home at the time and took pictures of the two men from the inside while they were trying to force open the door, according to earlier media reports.
Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson released the photos to the media the following day.
Burrow turned himself that day, later admitting at trial he had contacted the sheriff’s office and “stated he had seen his photograph on the news, that he was the one who had attempted to break into the home, and that he was on his way to the sheriff’s office to turn himself in,” the COA opinion states.
In the May 2015 trial, Burrow was found guilty of attempted felonious breaking or entering and attaining habitual felon status, and was sentenced to 63 to 88 months in prison.
His appeal argued that the jury should have been instructed on “duress,” claiming that the defense had presented evidence that Burrow had been held against his will when the attempted break-in occurred.
Burrow also claimed he had received ineffective assistance of counsel, because his attorney had not tried to bring into evidence that backed up his version of what had happened.
The Court of Appeals shot him down on both arguments.
Harris noted that the appeal had more to do with the judge than his prosecution, and that Burrow turning himself in had facilitated the case, but said, “you’re always excited when your case gets upheld and you don’t have to retry it.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.