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Shooting witness becomes victim after confidential information posted on Instagram

A series of events that started with a December 2021 shooting at a Salisbury basketball game has left a mother shouldering a growing mistrust of the justice system.

SALISBURY, N.C. — He started as a witness in a high-profile shooting, but became a victim after confidential information surfaced on social media labeling him a "snitch." The posting of that personal information started what Danielle Mason calls an infuriating series of events that she believes impacted her child's safety.

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

"It's been traumatizing," the mother of four said. "I don't want [my kids] to feel like they have to be scared out here. Why? Who wants to walk around out there like that?"

Her son's involvement in the case started at a high school basketball tournament at Catawba College in December 2021. Mason said her 15-year-old was involved in a fight, which led to shots being fired during the game.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Two teens charged as adults in shooting at Catawba College basketball tournament

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

Mason said her son cooperated with the Salisbury Police Department as a witness, sharing what limited information he could about the shooting. Just months later, someone posted the boy's "confidential" statement to the police, along with the family's address and other personal information, on Instagram.

"They were calling my kids snitches and rats because they thought that my kid was the ones that identified them in the shooting, which was never the case," Mason said. "I was devastated, just really devastated when I got this paperwork offline."

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A search warrant confirms an officer identified the alleged shooters after a video surfaced.

"[Police] said so theirself: 'These are bad guys.' Okay, then if these are bad guys, why give witnesses' addresses out?"

Credit: Danielle Mason

Not long after the documents appeared on Instagram, Mason said someone shot into a car with the teen inside. She does not think the crime, which remains under investigation by the Rowan County Sheriff's Office, is a coincidence.

"[My son] was in the car; my 4-year-old nephew was also in the car," Mason said. "If I could've got my hands on one of those kids. They went too far."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

Surveillance video shows the Rowan County Sheriff's Office eventually knocked on her door and interviewed her son without his mother home and without her permission. Mason, enraged by the lack of communication, ended the interview and kicked out investigators as soon as she walked in the door.

"I was so angry," she recalled. "I put them all out."

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Tim Emry is a criminal defense attorney in Charlotte. He finds the whole situation telling.

"It's bothersome to me," Emry said. "It illustrates the sort of traditional concept that unfortunately, police fight harder for those victims that they deem worthy."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

In response to WCNC Charlotte's questions, the Rowan County Sheriff's Office defended its interview of the boy. Chief Deputy David Ramsey said the same interview practice is routinely used "in a lot of cases," depending on the circumstances, "particularly in schools."

"I'm simply speaking to the legal interpretation," Chief Ramsey told WCNC Charlotte in an email. "I don't see anywhere in North Carolina law that says a non-custodial interview of a juvenile witness/victim requires a parent or guardian present. If you see something different, by all means let me know. There are many variables present in any investigation that determine the course of action taken. In this matter, investigators went to the home and asked to speak to Ms. Mason and/or her son. He just happened to be the one that answered the door. She arrived shortly thereafter."

Salisbury police, meanwhile, said the department followed state law, releasing all information related to the original basketball shooting investigation only to the Rowan County District Attorney's Office.

"The Salisbury Police Department is required per North Carolina General Statute 15A-501(6) to provide the Rowan County District Attorney's Office with all materials and information acquired in the course of all felony investigations," Lt. T. J. Crews said in an email. "The Salisbury Police Department complied with this statute and released information pertaining to the Catawba College investigation only to the Rowan County District Attorney's Office. North Carolina General Statute 15A-904(a2) does require the DA to provide all witness identification information and statements to the defendants in this case as required in all felony criminal trial cases."

The law cited requires prosecutors to hand over a witness' name, address, date of birth and phone number.

Lt. Crews added the department's professional standards unit reviewed the case to make sure no law, policy or procedures were violated. SPD recently closed that internal investigation, finding no wrongdoing.

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Emry expressed concern that someone published discovery materials.

"It shouldn't happen," Emry said. "I see it increasingly happen in cases, particularly with young people being accused, because they live so much of their lives online. There is sensitive information on that discovery that the public is not otherwise able to see. There's a lot of information in there that the average person wouldn't want plastered on their social media."

Emry said there is a way to better protect witnesses. The attorney told WCNC Charlotte prosecutors in nearby Mecklenburg County commonly ask a judge to withhold personal information, other than witness names, especially when the suspects and witnesses don't know each other well.

"It's concerning in that there is a mechanism in which sensitive information can be withheld if there's reason to have concern for a victim or a witness' safety and it appears that didn't happen in this case," Emry said. "The state can file a motion to withhold sensitive information. It's pretty routine. It's frequent in my cases that that information is redacted."

The case files provided to WCNC Charlotte by request don't document any petition to redact sensitive information in discovery.

"Due to the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, our office cannot discuss a pending criminal case or a pending criminal investigation," District Attorney Brandy Cook told WCNC Charlotte in an email. 

Mason said while her kids now live in fear, she is not afraid.

"I'm not scared," she told WCNC Charlotte. "They're not getting ready to scare me."

The mother reiterated the justice system made her son a target. She said the teens involved were previously unaware of her address.

She said the publication of this story by WCNC Charlotte doesn't put her teenager in any more danger. She hopes her experience will potentially help better protect other witnesses moving forward.

"I pray to God that nobody ever gets caught up into a situation where y'all gave out somebody's information and somebody gets hurt behind it," she said.

In the meantime, Mason said she now shoulders a growing mistrust of the system.

"I just don't have any more trust," she said. "It makes it really hard."

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

WCNC Charlotte is committed to reporting on the issues facing the communities we serve. We tell the stories of people working to solve persistent social problems. We examine how problems can be solved or addressed to improve the quality of life and make a positive difference. WCNC Charlotte is seeking solutions for you. Send your tips or questions to newstips@wcnc.com.

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