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A Courthouse Moment: “We do not have a body.”

In Durham County Courtroom 7C recently, prosecutor Mary Jude Darrow scans a docket of first appearances, bond hearings, and probation violations. Outside, a pair of black wedges and a plastic soda bottle sit forgotten in the hall. Inside, gallery members release yawns and stretch their limbs, earning a reprimand from the bailiff. Behind the defense table, a couple of inmates from the Durham County Jail slouch and await their turn in a pew of their own. 

Next up is the first appearance of Brentley Yancey, 34. Yancey, arrested three days earlier, has a short tapered haircut and wears an orange jail jumpsuit. His charges include first-degree kidnapping, second-degree burglary, and conspiracy to commit murder. As he steps to the defense table, his shackles clatter. 

On this day in late September, the state accuses Yancey of being implicated in the disappearance—and murder—of Shawn Burton, 44, a Durham father of six. The only issue is that Burton has not turned up. Nor has his body.

A murder without a body is unusual, so much so that such homicides hold a morbid fascination for some (there’s an entire website devoted to these cases). Nationwide, they yield higher conviction rates than typical murders, but they also pose complex challenges for prosecutors. As a former federal prosecutor once told the Los Angeles Times: “In a murder case, the body is the most significant piece of evidence.”

Darrow outlines the case. Shawn Burton disappeared on March 22. That night, a Ring doorbell camera recorded Burton being held at gunpoint by the three masked men behind him. They forced him to unlock the building. When police arrived at the scene, they found it ransacked; there was also blood in the kitchen. Later, investigators found that Burton’s car and two other vehicles traveled together from Durham to Henderson. Darrow says that this, presumably, is where the men disposed of Burton’s body. 

Yancey (and accomplices Darrius Tyson and Tariq Shaemar Henderson) would later be identified from the camera footage. Over a month before this hearing, the state issued a warrant for Yancey’s arrest.  After the fact, Darrow says, Yancey told witnesses that he was “wanted” and “trying to hide.” 

Darrow asks Judge Michael O’Foghludha to set Yancey’s bond at $1 million. She explains why: Yancey has three prior convictions, including criminal street gang activity, discharging a firearm into occupied property, and intimidating a witness. She is particularly concerned about the latter. 

“He is a danger to the community and a flight risk,” Darrow says matter-of-factly.

O’Foghludha informs Yancey of his right to court-appointed counsel; Yancey rejects it. Instead, he will be represented by attorney Julian Hall, who sits to his right at the defense table. Hall stands swiftly, prepared to refute the prosecution’s claims. 

Hall, with short black hair and a thick goatee, insists that the state has no substantial evidence and that they wrongly identified his client. 

“This is all stemming from masked men caught on a Ring camera,” Hall says. “Everything is ‘allegedly.’ We do not have a body.”

Audience members sigh and mutter, irritated.  Among them is a middle-aged woman dressed in scrubs. This afternoon is her second in court; she awaits her own first appearance. 

Still, Hall emphatically argues against the prosecution’s negative portrayal of Yancey. He tells the court that Yancey is a veteran who, despite his criminal history, has turned his life around.

“I will tell the court that these matters are from ten years ago,” Hall says. “He has not been in trouble in the past five years except for minor traffic violations and marijuana possession.”

 Hall explains that Yancey has shared custody of three young children. He also has enrolled in college classes and mentors at-risk youth. 

Hall requests an unsecured $1 million or secured $250,000 bond for his client. He addresses the state’s remarks dubbing Yancey a fugitive and flight risk. 

“He was not on the run,” the attorney says. “He was traveling, visiting friends, and living his life.”

After the arguments, O’Foghludha takes seconds to deliberate. Yancey sits still when O’Foghludha announces his bond will be $1.5 million. 

“We will evaluate again after discovery,” O’Foghludha says.

And just like that, Darrow refocuses on the docket. Glancing down, she calls the next case. The bailiff ushers Yancey out the same door he entered through.