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A Courthouse Moment: ‘It’s exhausting.’

Michael Ray Johnson, 34, has been waiting in jail for more than 200 days. Three years have passed since he broke into a woman’s home and assaulted her and her daughter, the mother of his son.

In this bond hearing on a recent Tuesday, Johnson sits in an airy Durham County courtroom, wearing long cream-colored sleeves beneath his orange uniform. He has almond-colored skin and cropped hair. He stares coolly ahead and sits mostly motionless and silent.  

Small groups of courthouse staff watch and whisper to each other, but the benches for people who aren’t paid to be here—defendants or victims or family—are mostly empty. 

After three years of delays, Crystal Smith, the mother of Johnson’s young son, doesn’t show up in court. And Lisa Fowler, the boy’s grandmother, who was once adamant about pursuing charges, isn’t there either. She is tired of waiting.

Fowler  “just says she doesn’t care what happens. It’s exhausting,” Assistant District Attorney Brooks Stone tells Judge Michael O’Foghludha. “She feels like her input is irrelevant, and it’s taking so long. This happened back in 2018.”

Since then, much has changed in Durham’s courthouse. Durham elected a new district attorney. A slew of prosecutors left; new ones picked up the stacks of files they left behind. The delays of a pandemic and busy DA’s office now keep worn-out victims and defendants alike in greater limbo than before.

According to the state, Johnson broke into Fowler’s home in June 2018. He entered through a window and tussled with Fowler and with Smith. He then ran outside, beat on Fowler’s Toyota Solara with a baseball bat, and then drove off. 

Fowler, her daughter and then-three-year-old grandson followed him outside. As Johnson drove off, neighbors heard gunshots. Police think Johnson was firing at Fowler, her daughter and grandchild. 

Smith dialed 911 that night. Now that she’s not interested in pressing charges, that call stands as her only testimony. 

The absence of Smith and Fowler could spell the end of Johnson’s case. Prosecutors don’t represent victims, but they do rely on them to testify. Domestic violence victims, in particular, are often uncooperative, Stone says. Johnson appeared in court on assault charges against Smith before, in 2017 and 2018, but the DA dismissed those charges because she didn’t show. 

Johnson’s files were swapped twice between DA’s. They first reassigned his case in September 2019, after six months without any hearings. His case was delayed again when the pandemic forced the courthouse to close for months. Finally, after 10 months without an appearance, Stone picked up his cases in July 2020, and Johnson got a new court date.

“His matters kind of got lost in the system,” Idrissa Smith, Johnson’s public defender, tells O’Foghludha. The lawyer gestures with his left hand and rests his right hand on Johnson’s shoulder. 

While Johnson’s case was postponed, he was free. But shortly after his case returned to the calendar, he missed a court date, and the police issued a warrant for his arrest. They picked Johnson up in February for illegal possession of drugs and jailed him for his failure to appear in court. He has remained in jail since.

The DA’s office postponed Johnson’s last three District Court dates for the drug charges without Johnson in the room, Idrissa Smith says. Durham prosecutors started automatically postponing cases to keep courtrooms uncrowded and prevent the spread of COVID-19. But they’re not supposed to do this to defendants in jail, Johnson’s attorney says. 

“At this point, keeping him in custody when you don’t really have witnesses is pre-trial punishment,” Idrissa Smith tells the court.

Because of the delays, the defense attorney hasn’t looked at the state’s evidence against Johnson in the drug case. 

 “I, as his defense attorney, have no clue what’s going on,” Idrissa Smith says, his voice echoing  through the room. He asks the judge to release Johnson and put him on house arrest, but the judge denies the motion. 

The state keeps Johnson in jail for another two weeks until Oct. 5, when he agrees to a plea deal. He will get credit for his time in jail and serve 15 to 27 months total for eight felonies. The waiting — for everyone — is over.