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A Courthouse Moment: ‘Stuff we have to deal with every day’

At 8:53 a.m., a short, ragged line forms on the plaza of the Durham County Courthouse. Retractable ropes funnel arrivals toward the single entrance — a set of heavy metal doors reinforced with bolt-like cylinders. Three sheriff deputies stand guard on this sunny morning holding clipboards stacked with the day’s docket.

To reduce potential COVID-19 exposures, the deputies limit entry. On the docket? In. Victim? In. Witness? Wait outside until the judge calls your case.

Strict COVID-19 policies have remained consistent throughout the pandemic, reports Corporal Denon Gray, one of the three deputies who regularly guard the doors. Masks are required, and deputies conduct temperature checks. One by one, those in line are either waved through or turned away. 

We often imagine courtrooms, with their stately grandeur and mahogany benches, as the backdrop for our legal system’s most fraught moments. But the drama begins at these doors, through which every witness and relative, victim and offender,  guilty and innocent, pass each day. “Any issues out in the neighborhood or in the streets,’’ Gray says, “sooner or later it will make its way here.”

The ritual begins as usual. 

“What are you here for today?” says Deputy James Zagardo to the next person in line. “What’s your last name?”

 He pages through the docket to find the name.

And finally: “Have you been sick or around anyone with COVID-19 in the last two weeks?” 

A woman’s scream pierces the air.  

Gray pauses and peers past the concrete column in search of the source. After a moment of quiet, the interrogations rev up again. Then another angry scream, now clearly coming from a middle-aged woman emerging from the courthouse. 

Her bright purple hair only makes her more conspicuous as she pushes a shimmery purple walker out of the building. With a shout, she summons an older woman seated quietly on the bench outside.

“I’m going home!” she yells at the older woman standing a few feet in front of her. “Everything I own is ruined because of you!” 

In a rage, she throws items from her bag at the older woman’s feet. The older woman stands feebly, attempting to calm her purple-haired companion.

Those in the queue rubberneck momentarily, but the line quickly resumes its churn. “This is the stuff we have to deal with every day,” Gray says. 

Attorneys greet the deputies with a friendly nod and are whisked past, like courthouse VIPs skipping the bouncers. Some women click up in heels, others in biker shorts. One man swelters in a three-piece suit, while another dons a Grateful Dead T-shirt. 

At 9:10 a.m., two young men approach the deputies. The first, who is there to appear in court, wears a white polo tucked into torn black jeans. His companion, not attempting to impress, wears a looser green shirt with old blue jeans. 

After quietly stating his business to Zagardo, the man in white moves toward the doors. The man in green, meanwhile, waits outside. 

As the man in white is nearly through the door, Zagardo shouts, “Do you think you are going to be getting incarcerated [today]?”

The words fall with a thud. 

The man in white shrugs: “They said it was a possibility.”

The three men stand frozen. Their simple bureaucratic encounter has quickly become a farewell. 

Zagardo reassures the man in white that he will have the opportunity to contact his friend again. The deputy keeps looking back and forth between the two.

The friends stare at each other, silent. Zagardo offers, “I mean, if you want to give him property now just in case…” 

After pondering for a moment, the man in white utters a quiet, “No.”  

These doors will see no emotional goodbye today.