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A Courthouse Moment: ‘Quite frankly, I haven’t decided whether to accept this plea’

A Courthouse Moment is a series of occasional stories reported by Duke student journalists as the action unfolds in front of them in the Durham County Courthouse. The short features give readers an intimate, real-time look at the inner-workings of Durham’s criminal justice system. — The Editors

Chasing Kenya Ward out of the courthouse, microphone in hand, a CBS reporter asks, “Is there anything you want to say?”

“I’m innocent,” Ward asserts. “Not guilty.” 

It’s 2021, and Ward has just been arrested, accused of embezzling nearly $1 million from North Carolina Central University. With an air of confidence, she strides out of the camera’s view.

But on a Monday in February 2024, nearly three years later, Ward wrings her hands in her lap. Her courtroom demeanor has markedly changed.

“You understand that by pleading guilty, you are giving up all of your rights to a trial and the rest of your rights to appeal your case?” Michael O’Foghludha, the Superior Court judge, inquires.

She pauses, as if to take in the gravity of his statement. “Yes, sir.”

A brief silence lingers in the air, the tension palpable. Ward’s husband shifts in his seat, eyes concealed behind large gold-rimmed sunglasses. 

Ward, 46, wears dress pants and a black and white patterned shirt, her dark hair slicked into a long ponytail that trails down her back. She towers over her defense attorney, Seth Blum. 

The prosecuting attorney, Adam Williamson, rises to read the charges against her. In April of 2021, he explains, Ward’s years-long embezzlement scheme began to unravel. As the manager of the bookstore at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), she had been funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into 13 bank accounts, siphoning $866,814 from the student bookstore and $33,470 from campus food services over three years. 

When her boss finally noticed suspicious transactions, he placed Ward on administrative leave. NCCU conducted forensic audits, unveiling thousands of pages of fraudulent transactions. Initial estimates pegged the transactions at a quarter of a million dollars. Soon, they’d learn the true figure was nearly four times that amount.

The university then made an even more jarring discovery: Ward had recruited multiple students and faculty members to her complex criminal enterprise. As a result, the university terminated an entire employment unit and dismissed five involved employees.

First arrested in 2021 and released on a $1 million bond, Ward has made several court appearances over the past three years. This will likely be the last. 

“I’ve been on this case since 2021,” Williamson, the prosecutor, says. “It’s been far too long. It’s time to come to a resolution.”

Ward was told that a trial could lead to 88 months in prison, so instead, she has opted for a plea bargain. The prosecution and defense have agreed upon a prison sentence of 24 to 41 months, along with a restitution fee of the full stolen amount, $900,284. It is now up to Judge O’Foghludha to decide if he will accept her plea.

After Williamson reads the charges, two witnesses for the prosecution are called forward. Their names are Akua Matherson and Fenita Morris-Shepard, the CFO and counsel for legal affairs at NCCU respectively. With matching black bob haircuts, fitted pantsuits, and stilettos, they lean forward to deliver their statements.

Matherson begins by describing the reputational damage Ward inflicted upon their university. “As a proud historically black college and university, we will not allow the misdeeds of others to stop our progress,” she says. “The actions of Ms. Ward and the tangled web she created will not stop North Carolina Central. We will continue to live by our motto of ‘Truth and Service.’”

 The judge raises an eyebrow, pausing before summoning the attorneys to his bench. As their hushed conversations heighten tensions in the courtroom, Ward’s husband gazes blankly at the ceiling. Her cousin absentmindedly twirls her rings. Her mother taps her foot.  

“Quite frankly, I haven’t decided whether to accept this plea,” O’Foghludha, at last, announces. He calls for a break, with the case set to resume at 2:30 p.m., three hours later.

At 2:30, Ward, her family, and Blum file back into the courtroom, finding it now emptied of all but those involved in the case.

The courtroom seems to take a collective breath as O’Foghludha reveals, “The original sentence was too lenient, in my opinion,” he says. “It has been renegotiated between the state and the defense.” 

The new sentence is over a year longer than Ward had hoped. This plea will leave her in jail for between 38 and 58 months. 

The judge asks for objections. There are none.

Ms. Ward stands to plead guilty, the creak of her chair piercing the silence. Blum escorts her to a pew positioned behind the bench where she awaits the journey to prison.

Ward’s mother lets out a sob, tears streaming down her cheeks as she tightly grips her son-in-law’s hand. With gentle reassurance, Ward’s cousin lays a hand on the mother’s back and guides her out of the courtroom, leaving Ward behind.

Storey Wertheimer