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A Courthouse Moment: ‘Everything in there is serious.’

Judge Doretta Walker glared down at two women with matching magenta-streaked braids  who stood before her in Courtroom 4D – in the Durham County Courthouse.

One of the women, Sekia Pegram, had violated her probation and subsequently failed to appear in court. And Walker was not happy. 

 “You could go to jail for being late today,” said Walker, a District Court judge. “You’re in custody for 45 days.”

In Durham, judges are elected officials. While they are accountable to their constituents, in the day-to-day churn of the criminal legal system, Walker reigns over the courtroom. Her thick, melodic voice fills the space. She commands. She nudges. She scolds.

“I love helping people,” Walker said. “I love holding people accountable. I love making sure that they know that they need to do right.“

That morning, she wore her black robe, and her favorite matching black mask — the one imprinted with “Judge Walker” in bold white lettering.There are three Black female judges up here,” she said, “and a lot of people get us confused. So, I put my name.”

With a decade of experience on the bench, Walker sees cases from trespassing to theft on a daily basis. Felonies and other serious cases may pass through District Court up to Superior Court, but Walker understands the power she wields. 

“The consequences of a conviction, everything is serious,” she said, enunciating each syllable. “To me, everything in there is serious.”

In court, Walker defended the 45-day sentence she gave Pegram.

“She gets every single day that she gets. I was nice to her. I can’t be nice to people, and she spits in my face,” she told Pegram’s public defender, Abigail Holloway, who protested the ruling. 

The bailiff gently guided Pegram to a seat on the bench to the right of Walker and handcuffed her. She rested her cuffed hands in her lap atop acid wash jeans, and Pegram glowered as the loss of her freedom sank in. 

Judge Walker sets the pace of her courtroom.

“Do you have something for me to do?” she repeated throughout the rainy September morning.  “I know you have something for me to do now. At least this gives us something to do.”

Her eagerness sometimes edged into impatience.

“Were you just over there looking at a piece of paper?” Walker asked Assistant District Attorney Andrew House, annoyed that he had not presented her with a legal argument yet in Pegram’s hearing. 

Earlier that morning, one defendant apparently left before his case was addressed. Walker counted him as failing to appear when his case was called, although he was present earlier.  Her hands are tied if those on the docket are not in her courtroom. 

“Who are we going to deal with now?” she asked as she inclined her head to the three lean men who filed in during Pegram’s hearing. 

They sat in a row, cuffed hands in their laps. Two wore rust-colored uniforms, and the third wore a bright orange jumpsuit. The “jail line,” Judge Walker called them.  

“Come on, they’ll miss lunch,” Walker said, hurrying House, as he rifled through papers between cases. 

Next, a witness spoke in the case of Gary Burton, one of the men on the jail line. Burton faced one count of attempted larceny and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon. 

Walker asked the witness what he wanted to see from the court system.

“I’ll let this court do what it wants to,” he said sheepishly, wearing a graphic T-shirt tucked into blue jeans. 

“Speak loud,” the judge said. 

 Walker asked the stout middle-aged man what he meant.

“We’re all human,” he said. “We all make mistakes.”

He just wanted Burton to be held accountable. 

 “You are so nice,” Walker told him. “You are a wonderful person.” 

ABOVE:  District Court Judge Doretta Walker. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal