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A Courthouse Moment: “You’re gonna do it or you’re not.”

Probation court—held four times a month at the Durham County Courthouse—bustles on a Tuesday morning in May. Here, Courtroom 7C is filled with chatter. Attorneys and correctional officers hurry in and out. In an hour, half a dozen defendants come before the judge for breaking the terms of their probation.

Charles Gamble, who was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon in Mecklenburg County, waited in the gallery to be called. He appeared to be in his late twenties and wore a purple button-up and gray slacks. Once it was his turn, Gamble, represented by his public defender, denied all allegations—except that he recently tested positive for THC, a chemical found in cannabis.

Superior Court Judge Lamont Wiggins found Gamble guilty of violating his probation and ordered him to continue supervision for another six months. Wiggins, who had a short beard, spoke loudly and kept his eyes locked on the defendant.

“Basically, Mr. Gamble, you just need to do what your probation officer asks you to do, and you will be fine…,” Wiggins said. “You are free to go.”

Another defendant, Brandon Marrero, 26, who wore a beige hoodie bedazzled with silver smiley faces and faced a hit-and-run charge, also avoided incarceration—despite his lawyer’s recommendation for 90 days of jail time.

After bickering with the judge about his employment and how he planned to cover court fees, Marrero agreed to pay $200 per month as a condition of his continued supervised probation. Then, he rushed out of the room.

The room did not slow between hearings. In the aisle, attorneys lined up, knowing their cases would be called next. Prosecutors with free time questioned gallery members who had not yet come before the judge: “What are you here for?” 

Next, the court called Wayman Hall, 54, for the second time. The first time, his public defender Nicole Edwards requested a few extra minutes to talk privately in the corridor with Hall, who had just arrived.

After the pair returned, Hall slouched silently in the row of benches in the back of the room. When prompted by Edwards, Hall sulked to the defense table. 

Hall, wearing a faded powder-blue Carolina Panthers T-shirt and dark blue jeans, stood with his back hunched. Edwards stood to his right dressed in a plaid blazer and black dress pants. 

In September 2020, Hall was arrested for resisting an officer, felony possession of a Schedule II controlled substance (cocaine), and possession of a controlled substance (heroin) with the intent to manufacture, sell or deliver. In November 2021, the first two charges were dismissed; Hall pleaded guilty to the third charge in May 2022. In exchange, he had to serve 24 months of supervised probation.  

Edwards told the court that Hall has struggled with drug addiction for several years; he reported using in the previous 72 hours. Though he admitted to violating his probation, Hall was still willing to try new treatment programs, Edwards said.

Edwards asked the state and Judge Wiggins to consider enrolling Hall in Durham’s STARR (Substance Abuse Treatment and Recidivism Reduction) program to help him get clean. At the time of the hearing, Hall was 22 days into another substance abuse program at United Quest Care Services. According to the program, he was scheduled to finish classes this August. 

“He has really cut down on the amount he’s using,” Edwards said. “Give him an opportunity to—as he put it—cut it all the way out.”

Representing the state, Hall’s probation officer suggested STARR and STARR GRAD.  

Within seconds, Judge Wiggins ordered Hall to spend 14 days in custody. This period would help “wean” him before he continued his probation, Wiggins said. 

The previously chatty courtroom grew hushed. Prosecutors who shuffled through papers and other case files paused to listen. 

“From the looks of it, it’s cocaine, fentanyl, or opioids,” Wiggins said.

Hall’s head dropped as he leaned each elbow on the two chairs he stood between. Edwards placed her hand on Hall’s back and he shook his head repeatedly. 

“Mr. Hall, you are a level-five offender,” Wiggins began, frustrated. “You are 54 years old. You have been through this before.” 

At this point, Hall had 49 prior convictions between Durham, Wake, and Alamance counties. Dating back to 1985, these convictions included driving with a revoked license (14 times), breaking and entering (six times), possession of drug paraphernalia (nine times), and felony possession of a schedule I or II controlled substance (five times). Hall was two prior conviction points shy of level six,  the highest in the state of North Carolina. 

“Either you will come out and stay clean, or you will be right back here,” Wiggins told Hall. “You’re gonna do it or you’re not….If not, you gotta get ready to lay down.”