The sound of metal leg cuffs pierced the hum of shuffled papers and creaky benches as Juan Gomez entered Courtroom 5A. For the half-hour Gomez was there, this was the most noise he made. In a room where words can shape one’s fate, he sat in silence, awaiting his own.
In a muted red Durham County Jail jumpsuit, he took his seat in the front. Then, all eyes shifted back to Judge Nancy Gordon as she continued down the docket of thirteen domestic violence cases on Aug. 30.
Gomez, a 32-year-old with shoulder-length black hair, stared at the floor and waited for his name to be called.
He was in District Court for assaulting a woman in late January. He failed to appear in court five times prior, according to Durham County Courthouse records.
Yet Gomez found himself in the courtroom after a separate arrest in Rowan County in May put him in custody. He then spent 110 days in Durham County Jail. Now, he hoped Judge Gordon would accept his plea bargain.
A few minutes before Gomez’s case began, two women entered the courtroom to watch his fate unfold. They came to support Gomez, according to his public defender Cassandra Tilley.
Courtrooms are known for their drama, in part due to their iconic sounds — a witness’s oath, a jury’s verdict, the bang of a gavel. But sometimes, spoken word falls aside and silent communication takes center stage.
This was the case for Gomez and the two women who sat in the last row of benches. Unable to mouth a greeting through their masks and seated too far away for Gomez to hear, they relied on gestures and facial expressions.
The younger of the two locked eyes with Gomez and her breath hitched. She brought a hand to her mask, tilted her head sadly and blew him a kiss. Gomez lifted both hands as far as his cuffs would let him and waved sheepishly.
The three of them waited as Judge Gordon finished other cases, glancing at each other from time to time.
The younger woman picked at a scab on her right hand. The older woman clenched her hands together. Judge Gordon finally called Gomez, their anxiety palpable.
The case moved quickly, as both sides looked to settle the matter.
Although Jordan Childress, the victim, sat behind her attorney Michael Wilcox, she too, was silent.
“Her only condition is that he not assault, threaten, harass, intimidate or interfere with her peaceful living,” said Wilcox, assistant district attorney in Durham County. Speaking on behalf of Childress, he consented to the plea.
From a back corner of the room, the two women craned their necks and peered across in an attempt to catch a glimpse of Childress. Unsuccessful, they leaned back. One crossed her arms over her chest. The other sighed and returned to picking her scab.
“Are you asking that he stay away from you?” Judge Gordon directed to Childress, her amplified voice cutting through the courtroom’s white noise.
“No, not necessarily, I just…” Childress trailed off.
“You just want him to not assault you,” Judge Gordon interjected.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” she mumbled, as the judge asked her to stand up.
In a white tank top, with an oversized black purse on her shoulder, Childress looked straight ahead at Judge Gordon, who deliberated silently. Gomez watched her from his corner. The two women glanced back and forth between them.
“Anything anybody want to say?” Judge Gordon snapped, but neither Gomez nor Childress said a word.
Instead, Tilley spoke up. She asked the court to accept the plea and remit Gomez’s fines. He doesn’t anticipate finding a job upon release and hasn’t made any money in the last three months in jail. In short, he couldn’t afford Tilley’s services.
“I’ll accept the plea, I’ll remit the money,” Judge Gordon said, with the begrudging tone of someone dissatisfied with the choices presented.
If she hadn’t accepted the plea, Gomez would only face another 40 days in jail. The maximum punishment for assault on a female in North Carolina is 150 days, and he already served 110.
“Don’t assault her again,” she warned Gomez. Turning to Childress, she advised, “And you need to be smart.”
The two women still held their breath, as Judge Gordon called the next name on the docket. The case was over, but their conversation with Gomez was not – he waved, and the younger woman placed her right hand over her heart in response. He rubbed his eyes and looked back at the floor.