Ralph Pilgrim slumped into a seat next to his public defender at the front of Courtroom 5A. With an elbow on the arm of the chair, propping up his head, he tossed his navy blue cap aside, leaned back and closed his eyes. Pilgrim, 61, has been here before.
He was convicted in September 2019 for assaulting a woman. Instead of the maximum sentence of 150 days in jail, he received supervised probation for 24 months. After a probation violation in March 2020, his sentence was extended for 12 months.
But on a Wednesday in late September, he was back in Durham County District Court for allegedly violating his probation again. Now, he faced possible jail time.
In an ideal situation, a judge’s ruling definitively resolves a case. The verdict is simple and lasting. But sometimes, a judge’s adjudication doesn’t mean a case is over. Instead, a 24-month probation can turn into 36, which can turn into a jail sentence. Another series of court appearances begins, each visit newly unfamiliar and complicated, regardless of how many times one has entered a courtroom before.
Judge Shamieka Rhinehart called the District Attorney’s office to introduce the case. Pilgrim stood up, towering over his public defender, Nicole Edwards. He was bald and heavyset, with thin wire-frame glasses. He wore acid-wash jeans and a gray graphic t-shirt that read “Good Vibes.”
In a matching tan suit and skirt, District Attorney intern Rachel Tucker introduced the case to Rhinehart. Her voice trembled, and she stopped in the middle of sentences to look down at her papers.
Tucker alleged that Pilgrim left his last known address and intentionally did not inform his probation officer, Tomeka Hodges.
She called Hodges to the stand. Hodges wore a gun in her holster and her badge on a chain around her neck. She recounted that Pilgrim missed his appointment with her on July 9. She went to his home on July 18 to check on him, learned that he no longer lived there, and reported him as absconding — the legal term for Pilgrim’s probation violation.
Then Edwards questioned Hodges: Had she looked into where Pilgrim worked? Had she contacted relatives in his file? Edwards, a petite woman with short blonde hair, spoke so closely to the microphone that when she asked the judge for a moment to collect her thoughts, her shallow breaths echoed in the near-empty room.
Edwards contended that Pilgrim left his boarding house due to theft. When he found out that he had been charged with a probation violation, he turned himself in on July 30, according to Edwards.
“That’s wrong,” Hodges interjected. “I looked it up, and he didn’t.”
“So you’re suggesting the date on [his paperwork] is incorrect?” Edwards said.
“He possibly dated it wrong. He turned himself in on the 2nd,” Hodges said, as Pilgrim shook his head.
Edwards called Pilgrim to the stand. As he raised his hand to take the oath, he tripped on the wheels of a chair and stumbled. A chorus of “woah” rose from the lawyers and court staff.
“Hold on there, get your bearings together,” Rhinehart said with a chuckle. “We don’t need an accident.”
Pilgrim sat down and cleared his throat, as Edwards asked him to introduce himself to the court. When he spoke into the microphone, the volume startled him and he recoiled. Edwards repeated the question and tried again.
As he answered, Pilgrim often mumbled. He seemed unsure of himself and he rambled. Twice, Edwards cut him off.
“Absconding to me is like, I’m running. Like I’m not letting anyone know, not even my mom, my sister, my brother, nobody knows,” he said. “That is definitely absconding, or what I think it is.”
He said that he turned himself in on July 30. Then, he reconsidered, searching Rhinehart’s face as he spoke.
“I think it was the 30th,” Pilgrim said. “[Hodges] said it was the 2nd, but I don’t think it was the 2nd. It could have been, but I don’t think it was. I think it was on the 30th.”
After Tucker questioned him, Edwards began her closing statement: “I would contend that Mr. Pilgrim did not willfully abscond his probation. To be an absconder you must—”
A faint ring tone of Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Thru The Phone” interrupted her. Pilgrim sheepishly dug through his pockets and pulled out a red phone. The deputy walked over, silenced it, and placed it by the clerk’s desk.
Rhinehart rubbed her eyes, and then her temples. Nearly an hour had passed. Because Pilgrim kept in contact with Hodges after he turned himself in, Rhinehart kept him on probation.
But her ruling still didn’t end the case: she ordered a check in for Pilgrim in late November. He will return to court again.