Archie Smith spoke to the young woman the day before she was murdered.
He had just started practicing law and saw the woman in the old Durham courthouse. She told him she was concerned about his client, who was charged with a violent crime.
“Look, are you up here today to see if you can get him out on bond?” she asked Smith.
“Yes, I am,” he told her.
“Please don’t do that. I’m the victim. I’m going to get attacked. If you get him out on bond, he’s going to hurt me.”
‘Ma’am, I’m a lawyer, and I have an obligation to represent the best interest of my client. I’m compelled to do that as an officer of this court.”
Today, he can only remember that she was a school teacher, but he can’t recall her name. He was an attorney, “young and stupid. Full of myself,” he says.
“Sure enough, I got him out. The next day I was up at the jailhouse, and he’d killed her,” Smith says.
Today, Smith says he still carries a sense of guilt from the woman’s death.
“The woman looked me right square in the eye and predicted it. What it taught me was that hubris has no place in my life. If I had not been as callow, if I had been more mature at the time and listened and believed, she may still be alive today.”
He tries to bring that humility to his job every day as the Durham clerk of Superior Court. It may sound like a humdrum job, but it’s actually makes him one of the most powerful people in the courthouse. While the media eye watches District Attorney Satana Deberry or the defense attorneys, Smith not only manages the vital records of the courts, but he also acts as a judge in cases about who’s competent to manage their finances and their legal affairs.
Step into Smith’s trinket-filled office on the second floor and you’ll discover one of the most interesting characters of the courthouse, a native Durhamite who keeps the place running and tries to create community among the employees.
‘All rise for the judge’
In North Carolina, court clerks have sweeping powers. Smith oversees the vital court records; he’s judge for about 46 proceedings, and he manages about 40% of Judicial Branch employees. Since becoming clerk, he’s aimed to build community among the staff.
Smith’s biggest responsibilities include controlling the inflow and outflow of court funds and hearing probate cases, where people quarrel over a dead relative’s will. And much of the time that he acts as judge, it’s up to him to keep and file the records.
Smith, 69, is a folksy grandpa with a fondness for Atticus Finch from “To Kill A Mockingbird.” He has shaved his white goatee and mustache into an upside-down teardrop shape. His teeth — slightly crooked on top and spaced out on the bottom — are visible when he grins and chuckles.
He talks slowly with a slight Southern drawl, chattering about “hogwash” or “a duck sitting in the water splashing.”
“The funnest part of my job?” He says. “Showing up.”
He puts people at ease. When the assistant clerk announces “All rise for the judge!”, Smith responds with a quick request that they sit, like he’s displeased with the formality.
He then changes to a professional, get-this-case-done approach, says Danielle Briggs, a county attorney at the Department of Social Services, who works with him on competency and guardianship hearings.
“Some judges will be very informal throughout a proceeding, and that will cause problems. (But Smith) makes a very clear switch from ‘Hey everybody. How’s it going?’ to ‘Okay, we’re going to straighten this out.’”
Smith sees many first-timers in his courtroom and in the clerk’s offices. He says that many Durham residents don’t have money to hire a lawyer. He wants to help them represent themselves without overstepping legal boundaries.
“If you’re not involved in the legal system, it’s Greek to you,” he says. “We can give them information and help them get something done and be a servant to ‘em. Make ‘em feel comfortable. Now we can’t do your work for ya, but we can point you.”
Despite his sweeping powers and the fact he’s won reelection since he started 17 years ago, he remains largely unknown in the city.
Retired attorney Jay Freeman says most people don’t know what any North Carolina clerk does.
“It’s a very important position,” he says. “It affects more people, quite frankly, than a judge does.”
Smith’s office, tucked behind his personal courtroom on the second floor, is filled with an unusual mix of with trinkets and collectibles. A stuffed worm found in local tobacco plants, a Galileo thermometer, a paperback Guide to Texas Etiquette, and about 20 model cars.
On his credenza, he keeps an 11-by-14 photo of Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He says the convictions and character make him a role model.
“He was trying to get to the truth,” he says of the legendary character in the novel and film. “In order to get to the truth, he sacrificed a lot. He was representing an unpopular cause. His community, with his daughter there, and all his neighbors there. He could have been ostracized from his neighborhood.”
Smith sighs. “But it was so important to him. I have to admire somebody like that.”
He thinks a lot about integrity when the hard cases come, and there have been a lot of them since that young teacher died.
He sometimes has to keep parents from accessing their minor children’s trust funds, even when they just want to pay a utility or buy their kids a Christmas gift. He recalls denying competency to an ingenious but deceitful man even though people were backing his independence.
He often has to say “no” – and that’s not always popular.
Satana Deberry, the Durham district attorney, says Smith tries harder than anyone else to be a mediator at the courthouse.
“Archie is like ‘hail fellow well met.’ He has a classic Durham story that I don’t think we see a lot anymore. He is the white kid who grew up poor in Durham, really has been working his whole life to get where he is,” she says. “I think he sees everybody on the other side of the counter the same way he sees himself. I don’t think he makes any differentiation.”
Smith was born at Duke University Hospital, delivered newspapers, and went to Durham High School, which is now just a memory. He recalls eating shaved ice from tall glasses in a Duke cafeteria and catching tadpoles in Dixie cups from the Duke Gardens. He’s a lifelong Durhamite, and he’s nostalgic about the past.
“Well, Durham is home, gosh,” he says.
He recalls a “happening” Durham with full employment and prosperity. He says it was the envy of the Raleighites and Caryans, if you will.
“They don’t have something that Durham has,” he says. “We have a number of historic buildings that give a certain panache. The past tied to the future. Old warehouses and things, enough of that has been saved.”
Many of his office trinkets point to Durham’s past such as a nametag for his predecessor James Leo Carr, a key to the old courthouse vault, and some Ever Ready Oil to lubricate the key.
His trinkets are “a reminder of the way things used to be. And I like being about the way things used to be,” he says.
He romanticizes watching the film “The Spirit of St. Louis” with his parents and younger brother at the Starlite Drive-In off Club Boulevard. But he says he likes the new, more avant-garde and pedestrian-friendly Durham, too.
“Well, if you don’t change, you’re going to get lost.”
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