RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The probe into a 2020 Josh Stein campaign ad for claims of misdemeanor election violation is being dropped, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman announced Thursday.
The investigation, Freeman said, has come to an end with the granting of a preliminary injunction that was sought by NC Attorney General Josh Stein and others who worked for his campaign ahead of the 2020 election.
The injunction was approved through the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Wednesday.
In August 2022, a grand jury had paved the way to a possible indictment with a decision to move forward with an investigation.
It all stemmed from an ad that’s become known as the “Survivor ad,” which focused on a major topic in the race between Stein and Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill.
The topic was the handling of rape kits, which pointed to the Survivor’s Act, enacted in 2019 by the NC General Assembly. The act called for the submission of previously untested sexual assault kits from across the state.
In the ad, a sexual assault victim and employee of North Carolina Department of Justice made the following statement:
“As a survivor of sexual assault that means a lot to me and when I learned that Jim O’Neill left 1,500 rape kits [sitting] on a shelf leaving rapists on the street, I had to speak out.”
O’Neill filed a complaint that claimed that the advertisement violated North Carolina General Statute 163-274(a)(9).
The state law makes it a class 2 misdemeanor for anyone to publish derogatory reports or false information with reference to any candidate in a primary or general election with intent to affect the chances for a candidate’s nomination or election.
When the complaint came about, Stein argued that the law was unconstitutional in that it counters the rights protected in the First Amendment. He even pursued a case in federal court to get it declared as such.
Gov. Roy Cooper (D) also weighed in on the matter in August 2022, calling it “an unprecedented repression of free speech that should trouble everyone.”
Following the campaign, O’Neill narrowly lost the election to Stein by just 13,600 votes, or about one-quarter of a percentage point.
As of the court’s opinion released on Wednesday, O’Neill’s complaint is no longer being looked into.
Further, DA Freeman said the court’s decision to grant the injunction prevents the state from moving forward with the investigation since “misdemeanor offenses in North Carolina have a two-year statute of limitations.”