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Posts published by “Daniel Egitto”

Census miscounted Durham prisoners — for 20 years.

In all likelihood, most Durhamites will never see Butner Federal Correctional Complex.

North Carolina’s only federal prison is just 11 miles from Brightleaf Square, straddling the line between Durham County and neighboring Granville County. But the roads that lead to it are almost deserted. Acres of forest isolate the complex, and driving northeast on Old Oxford Road, signs for a pharmaceutical business park and the entrance to Historic Stagville plantation are among the only hints of civilization.

Perhaps this remoteness is part of why, between 1990 and 2010, the U.S. Census incorrectly counted all Butner prisoners as residing in Granville County—despite a substantial portion of them living on the Durham side of the county line. 

Census data guides over $1 trillion in federal spending each year and determines the shape and size of counties’ voting districts. 

The miscount, which involved thousands of federal detainees, skewed such decisions. It warped Granville County voting maps and caused at least one federal department to misallocate funds. And it throws Durham and Granville into a nationwide debate over whether the census should count prisoners as residents of the counties where they’re incarcerated—a practice that activist Gino Nuzzolillo calls “a remnant of white supremacy.”

The miscount

Five facilities—a medical center, a prison camp, a low-security prison and two medium-security prisons—comprise Butner Federal Correctional Complex (FCC). The buildings cluster together at the south end of the institution’s 1,600 acres of mostly undeveloped land.

The Durham/Granville county line has bisected the complex since it opened in 1977. A Durham Geographic Information Systems map shows the line cutting through the oldest part of Butner FCC, Federal Correctional Institution I (FCI-I), with most of FCI-I’s buildings falling on the Durham side. 

A Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population report in February 2000 counted 825 prisoners as residing in this medium-security facility. The report also counted 302 prisoners at Butner Federal Prison Camp, which is entirely in Durham County.

All Durham federal prisoners resided in Mangum Township, the county’s northernmost subsection. However, the 2000 decennial census—taken just two months after this population report—counted zero detainees in Mangum Township. So did the 1990 census.

In other words, two decades of censuses failed to count any of Durham’s hundreds of federal prisoners as residing in the county.

Initially, the Census Bureau repeated its miscount in 2010. But administrators noticed something amiss while reviewing that year’s data.

 The Bureau quietly issued a correction. Mangum Township didn’t have zero prisoners—it had 2,387 prisoners. Conversely, Granville County’s recorded incarcerated population dropped from 5,631 to 3,244.

The Census Bureau did not update its publicly available datasets to reflect this information, and no major media outlets appear to have reported the error.

Durham Planning Manager Scott Whiteman, who assumed his current position in 2015, said that he “can’t confirm” whether the Census Bureau notified Durham County when it discovered the mistake. However, he believes he might have once heard his predecessor mention the miscount. 

“I’m glad it’s correct now,” he said.

Districting problems

The miscount had a measurable impact on Granville County’s voting districts.

The 2010 redistricting cycle found North Carolina legislators embroiled in controversy over gerrymandered maps. While state officials tussled over where and how to draw congressional district lines, Granville County drafted its voting maps using the original 2010 census data—data that incorrectly counted over 2,000 Durham County residents.

These residents made up about 4% of Granville County’s recorded population.

Most federal prisoners can’t vote, so the miscount had little impact on how many voters cast ballots in the county. However, Granville County uses census data to draw the boundaries of its seven voting districts. Each of these districts elects its own county commissioner and school board member.

Since Butner FCC’s district had fewer residents than census data indicated, this meant that the area was overrepresented in the county government. Relative to its population, it was bigger than it should have been, and its residents’ votes carried more weight than votes elsewhere in the region.

County officials drafted a new district map in March 2013 after the Census Bureau notified them of the mistake, according to a county press release. Reporting on a tangentially related story this October, Charlotte news station WFAE obtained documents showing where the county adjusted district lines.

Officials carved off a sizeable chunk of District 7, which contains the town of Butner, and gave it to District 3, which contains the federal prison. They then shifted the borders of two other voting districts to reestablish a balance.

Prior to the 2013 correction, Granville County’s districts had presumably reflected flawed census data since 1990.

Economic impacts

The error’s economic consequences are more difficult to measure.

On the Granville side of the county line, a five-minute drive from the federal prison, the town of Butner is an unusual place. In contrast to the deteriorating infrastructure that mars many of North Carolina’s small towns, Butner’s town hall and post office are modernist gems.

Auburn accent colors, large windows and geometric metal features distinguish the buildings. A plaque outside the town hall dates its construction to 2011, while a flag across the street declares that Butner incorporated in 2007.

Butner owes most of its growth to the numerous federal and state institutions that cluster around it. In addition to the federal prison, the town of some 8,000 people also contains a state psychiatric hospital, a substance abuse treatment center, a regional hospital, a center for people with disabilities and a home for at-risk veterans.

But flawed census data also played a role in the town’s economic success.

In 2017, an analysis by The George Washington University found that the federal government relied on census counts to distribute $1.5 trillion to over 300 programs nationwide. These include heavy hitters like highway planning and construction, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and low-income housing loans.

Not all of these programs distribute funds on a county-by-county basis. For instance, a spokesperson at the Department of Health and Human Services said that none of that agency’s numerous programs would have been affected by the miscount.

At the North Carolina Department of Transportation, however, a spokesperson said the oversight probably impacted two kinds of budget allocations: 5311 funds and the Rural Operating Assistance Program. Both of these provide public transportation in rural areas.

The NCDOT determines how much money to give these funds based on the U.S. Census’s county population estimates. The miscount would have resulted in more money going to Granville County and less to Durham County between 1990 and 2010.

Fortunately, N.C. State Demographer Michael Cline said that the federal government waited for the Census Bureau to review its data before allocating funds based on the 2010 numbers. So that year’s error had no bearing on federal funding.

Who was responsible?

On a cold November morning, one of Butner FCC’s medium-security prisons appears to be an unassailable fortress.

A double layer of chain link fence encircles the buildings’ gray concrete slabs. Lengths of razor wire cover the fences and fill the gap between them, glittering in the sunlight like an enormous steel serpent.

A bus with black tinted windows rumbles along a path just inside the fence. A few crows caw from the woods. Otherwise, silence. 

Cline said that the Census Bureau counts prisoners “administratively.” Instead of having a census taker go from cell to cell, a prison official simply sends the Bureau a record of their institution’s population.

But who was that official? And what Census Bureau employee was in charge of Butner FCC’s data?

Cline, who has worked with the Census Bureau since 2017, said he didn’t know what took place at his agency 10, 20 and 30 years ago. And the prison complex was even less forthcoming.

Representatives did not respond to multiple emails, and the phone line for the public information officer’s facility appears to be nonoperational. Phone calls rang for several minutes and then dropped.

The BOP website lists all of Butner FCC’s subsections as being in Granville County, making no mention of Durham County. It’s possible this played a role.

But it’s unclear who specifically was responsible for the census miscount.

It is similarly unclear whether the 1980 census, the first census to count the prison complex, also misrecorded Butner FCC residents.

That year’s count tallied 385 federal and state prisoners in Granville County and 103 in Durham County. But it failed to record prisoners by township, removing a key piece of evidence.

With more recent data, it would be possible to compare the available numbers against population records from the BOP. But a spokesperson said over email that the BOP information office has no access to records from before 2001—leaving no obvious way to verify whether the miscount spanned an additional 10 years.

How to challenge a census miscount

During a two-and-a-half year window following each decennial census, municipalities can present challenges to recorded data.

The Count Question Resolution Operation (CQR) opened in December and will run through June 2023. Cline said that county governments can present a CQR challenge if they believe their region has been misrepresented.

The Census Bureau investigates these challenges and releases corrections.

Private citizens can’t file a CQR challenge on their own. But they can contact their county government if they find something suspicious in census data.

For Durham County challenges, Cline recommended reaching out to City Manager Wanda Page. Her email address is wanda.page@durhamnc.gov, and her office’s phone number is 919-560-4222.

Where do prisoners “actually reside”?

Some people disagree with the practice of counting prisoners as residents of the county where they’re imprisoned, rather than the county they originally came from.

One vocal reform proponent is the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ). This group, which advocates for the rights of communities of color, has filed a lawsuit alleging racial gerrymandering in North Carolina’s current district maps.

SCSJ spokesperson Gino Nuzzolillo said in an interview that prisoners feel little connection to the community surrounding their prison and rarely remain in-county after they’re released.

Counting detainees as residing in their prison’s county “unfairly” boosts that region’s political clout, Nuzzolillo said, while also reducing the political power of prisoners’ counties of origin. Since U.S. prisons disproportionately detain Black and Brown people, while towns that house prisons tend to be mostly white, Nuzzolillo sees this as a racial equity issue as well as a political one.

The system’s apparent unfairness leads Nuzzolillo and other activists to refer to the current counting method as “prison gerrymandering.”

Donald Murphy, a BOP spokesperson, did not answer emailed questions about whether the BOP supports existing policies. He instead directed The 9th Street Journal toward a webpage that listed which states currently allow felons to vote and summarized recent legal developments on the issue.

But Jason Torchinsky, general counsel to the National Republican Redistricting Trust, defended the practice in an August interview with the politics news website The Hill.

He argued that prisons “generally rely on local communities for food, water, power, health care [and] support services,” and that government funding should reflect that. Also, since many prisoners come from urban areas, Torchinsky said that failing to count them where they “actually reside” would give undue power to Democratic politicians.

The future of prison census counts

Nevertheless, many states have recently changed their policies.

In 2011, Maryland and New York became the first states to pass laws requiring the census to count prisoners in their counties of origin, according to the Prison Gerrymandering Project. Eight other states followed suit in time for the 2020 census, and a ninth will implement changes in 2030.

North Carolina policies remained unchanged during the most recent redistricting cycle, which concluded in November, but the SCSJ lobbied counties around the state to disregard prison populations when drawing district lines. This way, at least in local elections, all votes in a county would carry equal weight.

It’s unclear whether Granville County followed the SCSJ’s advice. When asked, local officials directed The 9th Street Journal to Brooks Pierce law firm, the private company that drew the first draft of their district maps. But a representative at Brooks Pierce declined to comment for this story.

On Nov. 16, the day after Granville County finished revising its maps, County Commissioner Jimmy Gooch described the redistricting process as “a headache” involving many moving parts. He expressed relief that it was over.

“None of us liked the end product,” he said in an interview, “but you live with it.”

Nuzzolillo, meanwhile, said the SCJS will continue advocating for reforms, although changes to census policies won’t affect anything until the next count in 2030. He stressed the importance of fair counts and fair districts for the functioning of democracy.

“The ability to freely cast a ballot,” he said, “means very little if you are doing it in a voting district where your vote has been diluted.”

 

Cold case sexual assault unit whittles sprawling rape kit backlog

A visitor discovered the first victim half-naked in a bathroom at Duke Hospital, recovering from having been choked unconscious. Bits of her attacker’s flesh were lodged under her fingernails, the remnants of a violent struggle.

 A month and a half later, another woman was walking home on Ellerbe Creek Trail when the attacker again appeared and strangled his victim from behind until she blacked out. This time, he raped her. 

Despite a sexual assault kit collected from the second victim, as well as surveillance footage of the first victim and DNA samples from her fingernails, these 2015 attacks went unpunished for six years.

But the attacker, 33-year-old Emanuel Burch, couldn’t hide forever. Thanks to a state-funded initiative with the Durham Police Department (DPD), Burch was sentenced on Oct. 25 to at least 16 years in prison—the latest in a string of convictions in rape cold cases.

Since 2019, the DPD’s Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit has been working through an enormous logjam in mostly untested rape kits. The unit has identified at least three other repeat offenders and has charged over a dozen suspects in total. And they’re only about halfway done.

Said Lt. Stephen Vaughan, who works closely with the unit: “We still have a lot of work to do.” 

A massive backlog

When North Carolina passed the Survivor Act in 2019, the state had one of the country’s most extensive rape kit backlogs. Of the more than 16,000 kits left untested in North Carolina, 1,700 were in Durham County, The News & Observer reported.

Vaughan blames the limitations of old DNA testing technology, as well as previous state restrictions on when rape kits could be processed.

At an October 2020 news conference, however, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein also referenced a lack of “sensitivity” toward sexual assault victims. He said some police departments used to dismiss a case if the alleged victim’s story varied at all between retellings.

“There’s [now] greater scientific knowledge about the impact of trauma,” Stein said, referring to research that shows traumatic memories are often shaky or inconsistent. “There’s more understanding about victims’ rights.”

The Survivor Act allocated $6 million to jumpstart progress on untested rape kits. In the past two years, Durham County has submitted almost its entire backlog to a private testing company in Virginia. 

Bode Technology is working through these kits — some of which date back to 1988 — alongside a mountain of other kits from throughout North Carolina and other states. Any time the lab gets a hit on a Durham DNA sample, it notifies the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit.

Catching a rapist 

Police got their first strong lead on the two strangulation attacks in September 2019.

Unlike in many other cold cases, investigators had sent this rape kit for testing shortly after collecting it, said prosecutor Blake Norman. They identified leads and pored through available evidence. But they were unable to match the kit’s DNA to any suspects, and the case soon went cold.

Investigators have two main ways of identifying criminals through DNA.

The simplest way is if a person is arrested on a felony charge. Law enforcement collect alleged felons’ DNA and upload it to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national genetic database. Testing companies like Bode regularly check their databases’ DNA against CODIS and notify investigators when there’s a match.

This can provide powerful evidence against a suspect. 

“You take away the argument of, ‘Oh, I didn’t do it’ or ‘I wasn’t there,’” Norman said. 

When there isn’t a CODIS match, investigators can also turn to genetic genealogy. Genetic profiling companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com send their data to law enforcement. So if a suspect’s close family members take one of these tests, that can help investigators home in on the criminal even if the suspect’s DNA isn’t in CODIS. 

By itself, however, genetic genealogy doesn’t provide enough evidence to arrest someone. That’s because it’s imprecise and usually can’t distinguish a perpetrator from, say, their sibling. Investigators need the suspect’s own DNA, and they sometimes have to find creative ways of gathering it—digging through trash cans, collecting cigarette butts, etc.

Durham police identified Burch when they got a CODIS hit following his arrest in another state, Norman said.

A cheek swab confirmed the match, and Burch was charged with strangulation, sexual battery and attempted rape in the first attack, as well as rape and attempted murder in the second. Prosecutors later dropped the attempted rape and attempted murder charges.

Pressing charges

Generally, the judicial system invests little time or resources into crime victims. Prosecutors represent the state, not victims, and some Durham victims have complained about a lack of support from courts and say they have little influence on how their cases are prosecuted.

But the Special Victims Unit, which handles child abuse cases as well as sexual assaults, works differently.

Investigators say they don’t prosecute alleged rapists until they contact survivors and get their consent. Since many attackers are already serving extensive prison sentences by the time police identify them, investigators say, victims sometimes choose not to press charges.

At an Apr. 13 press conference, Vaughan said the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit had found DNA matches in 17 cases, resulting in 13 suspects being charged.

Once the DPD contacts an alleged victim, Vaughan said police direct the victim to an in-house advocate who works with them and helps them decide whether to go forward with the case. Victims may also speak with the Durham Crisis Response Center, which offers free counseling and confidential services for survivors and their loved ones.

Jasmin Young-Bradshaw, the crisis center’s interim executive director, stressed that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to victim advocacy.

“We’re here to listen,” Young-Bradshaw said. “Really, it’s about supporting them in a way that they see is fit.”

Securing a conviction

In addition to Burch, the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit has identified at least three other serial attackers.

One suspect, who faces charges in one Durham attack and two attacks in Florida, was still awaiting trial as of the April 2021 press conference. Another pleaded guilty in August to two counts of rape. And the third—a 60-year-old—died in March while facing two charges each of rape and sexual battery.

As for Burch, he pleaded guilty as charged in the first 2015 attack and took an Alford plea in the second. This means that he denies sexually assaulting the victim, but admits that a jury would convict him based on the evidence.

A judge ordered Burch to undergo psychiatric counseling, receive substance abuse treatment and participate in a behavior adjustment program for sexual offenders. Altogether, Burch may serve up to 24 years and 3 months behind bars.

It’s unclear if Duke Hospital made any changes to its security following the attack there. A spokesperson said over email that she would try to find out, but several weeks later, she had yet to provide details.

Durham County’s backlog of rape kits is no longer growing, Vaughan said. Police send most kits for testing within a week, and survivors can view the current status of their kit via an online portal.

DNA testing continues to get faster and more accurate, and Vaughan believes sexual assault investigations will improve.

“As the technology gets better and better and we learn more about it and get more used to it,” he said, “it just becomes a better tool.”

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, the following resources are available:

  • Durham Crisis Response Center 24-hour help line: 919-403-6562 (English); 919-519-3735 (Spanish)
  • Durham Police Department Special Victims Unit: 919-560-4440
  • NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault: 919-871-1015

PHOTO ABOVE: Emanuel Burch may serve more than 24 years for strangulation and sexual battery in two Durham attacks in 2015.

Officials, activists clash over plans to expand youth detention center

Durham officials clashed with prison abolitionists Thursday night over a $30 million plan to more than double the size of the county’s juvenile detention center.

Durham Beyond Policing, which advocates for diverting all funding for police and prisons into social programs, organized the virtual town hall. Over 120 Durhamites attended, many of them  opposed to county plans to replace the 14-bed Durham County Youth Home with a 36-bed facility.

County commissioners and Youth Home Director Angela Nunn pointed to the 38-year-old building’s outdated facilities and limited bedspace. But many community members say that  expanding the juvenile justice system would harm Durham’s youth.

This debate comes as communities throughout North Carolina and the United States grapple with a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes poor people and racial minorities of all ages. 

“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” Nunn said of the detention facility. “Our families are in crisis and we need to help.”

Said community member Nicole Cooper, “If [detained youth] didn’t have mental health issues when they were incarcerated, they will when they are released.”

The $30 million question

In a 2015 report to the county, Nunn identified several serious problems with the Youth Home.

She described “a dangerous environment for staff and residents,” plagued by faulty plumbing, fire code violations, bad lighting and a failing door control system. But the “greatest security concern” was the facility’s layout, which prevented staff from separating youth based on gender or security level.  

The report also raised doubts about the Youth Home’s ability to house Durham juveniles if the state were to start trying 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Raise the Age, the law that mandates that courts do this, passed in 2019—resulting in even less bedspace at the detention center.

“The facility is so bad, it’s sad to see anyone in that place, no matter what they have done,” Commissioner Chair Brenda Howerton said at the town hall.

That’s why commissioners agreed to an overhaul of the facility. The new Youth Home, which the city has been planning since 2015, would include an assessment center to determine children’s needs and connect them with programs and services. And the facility would still have enough room to expand into a 60-bed center if it ever needed to.

The expanded detention center would stand on the same plot of land as the current one, which would be demolished once the new one is completed.

But Durham activists argued that the $30-million expansion budget should go to social programs that address the root causes of youth delinquency. In an on-the-spot brainstorming session, community members suggested more than 50 alternative uses for the money.

Ideas included mental health services, counselors, drug rehabilitation programs, universal childcare, universal pre-K and a youth center.

“This is why public input is necessary!” the Durham Beyond Policing admin wrote in the Zoom chat. “Amazing ideas y’all.”

Advocates clash

For the first half of the town hall, which started at 7 p.m and ran until about 9:15 p.m., opponents of the new Youth Home raised a variety of concerns.

Organizer Tyler Whittenberg argued that detention centers isolate children and worsen preexisting issues. And Meghan McDowell, a professor of history and social justice at Winston-Salem State University, pointed out that youth incarceration rates have declined over the past ten years. Since 2016, the Youth Home has never averaged more than 12.6 detainees per quarter.

Other community members spoke emotionally about Durham County’s handling of children’s offenses and mental health crises.

One woman’s daughter was violent, lit fires in the house, showed signs of kleptomania and said she heard voices. But for six years, professionals told the mother that the girl had “no obvious mental health challenges.”

Another woman still grieves the death of her 16-year-old daughter, who died in the Durham County jail before Raise the Age passed.

When representatives from the county government took the virtual floor, however, the tone shifted dramatically.

Director Nunn’s voice was sharp with anger as she addressed organizers’ critiques. She noted that although the quarterly averages don’t show it, the Youth Home’s population fluctuates from day to day.

“We may have 14 [youth] today, 12 tomorrow and by the weekend we may empty to five,” she said.

This means the Youth Home “often” runs out of bed space and must send children to one of the state’s 11 other juvenile detention centers. The nearest of these is in Butner, 12 miles from downtown Durham.

In the chat, Durhamites heckled Nunn as she spoke, repeatedly asking why the Youth Home would ever need to expand to 60 beds. Some argued that having additional beds “creates an imperative” to fill them, even though the courts, not the Youth Home, control who gets sent there. And Whittenberg interrupted Nunn four times to urge officials to renovate the existing facility, rather than build a new one.  

“I just wanted to intervene for a second,” said organizer Ronda Taylor Bullock, closing out the argument. “Let’s take some deep breaths.”

Commissioners respond

In the last portion of the town hall, four of the Durham County Commissioners who attended — Brenda Howerton, Wendy Jacobs, Nida Allam and Heidi Carter — responded to community concerns. 

Howerton, the first to speak, blasted organizers for dismissing the reality of violent crimes.

“I’m a Black mother,” she said. “I don’t want my child to be in jail. But I also understand that when [a child] picks up a gun and murders someone else’s child, that child is in pain. And if you want to put them back on the street to murder someone else before they have a chance to be healed—is that what you’re looking to do?”

Jacobs, Allam and Carter were more conciliatory. All raised the possibility of shutting down the Youth Home if that’s what the public wants, although this would mean sending Durham youth to out-of-county detention centers.

Organizers, for their part, bemoaned a lack of communication prior to the town hall. While the five-member County Commission had discussed the Youth Home proposal at multiple public meetings, many Durhamites said they’d only recently heard about it.

Commissioners agreed to hold another public hearing on the Youth Home soon.  

Said Commissioner Allam, “I really appreciate you guys giving us this opportunity as commissioners to be a part of this conversation and listen.”

 

People skills. Check. Saying yes. Check. This is no ordinary bureaucrat.

Trial Court Administrator E. Deneen Barrier’s desk is a mess.

Pushed into a corner beside her monitor, an enormous stack of jumbled documents dominates the space. Barrier thumbs through the pile as she hunts for a jury selection calendar, flipping past paperwork from seemingly every department in the Durham County Courthouse.

Similar “pockets of danger,” as Barrier refers to them, litter the office. They include a thick stack of papers labeled “shred and destroy,” a mountain of boxes and scrambled files, and a whiteboard calendar still reading “May 2021.”

Barrier wears many hats in the courthouse, all of them involving keeping operations as smooth and organized as possible. But she doesn’t see bureaucracy the way most people do. Some might associate court management with red tape and closed doors, but Barrier said she’s centered her career around creativity, openness and a willingness to say “yes.” 

And sometimes that means learning to work with chaos.

“It’s a Broadway show,” Barrier said, referring to the courthouse. “It’s the lights, it’s the cameras, it’s the props—it’s all that.”

The problem-solver

Barrier’s office sits at the top of the courthouse, on the ninth floor — the same floor as the judges’ chambers and the District Attorney’s office. Her window offers astonishing views of downtown Durham surrounded by a sea of trees.

Barrier loves discussing her work. Dressed in slacks and a tie-neck denim blouse, she is a dynamic, engaged speaker, sometimes asking questions of her interviewer or moving around the room to illustrate a point. Her descriptions of her duties often flow from administrative jargon to moving accounts of courthouse drama.

As trial court administrator, Barrier handles tasks such as coordinating civil hearings and scheduling juror summonses. But the full scope of her duties extends far beyond that.

In May 2020, Barrier also became the courthouse’s COVID-19 coordinator. Since then, she has worked with other top-tier court officials to establish the numerous shifting health precautions the courts have adopted over the past 20 months. 

Barrier is one of the courthouse’s two disability access coordinators, providing equipment like hearing aids and crutches to those who need them for court. And judging from the many visitors, phone calls and emails she received on a recent Tuesday morning, many court employees consider her their go-to problem-solver.

One of Barrier’s first challenges that day came from a person wanting to bring a service animal to court. In her 17 years working there, Barrier had never received such a request. But she knew who could help.  

She sent a quick email to, and left a voice message for, the disability access coordinator at the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees judicial functions for North Carolina.  Then she waited.

‘Oil upon those troubled waters’

Barrier recalled one occasion where she spotted a man arguing with an arbitrator after he’d missed his hearing. She told the man that the case was out of the arbitrator’s hands, but that she could reschedule it for him.

He turned his frustration on Barrier. He ranted for the entire trip to the ninth floor, and when they left the elevator, he was still too distraught to be reasoned with.

“He’s bent down like this,” Barrier said, crouching and staring at the floor with tense hands framing either side of her head. “He’s just, ‘This is not right, this is not fair.’”

Not wanting to tower over him, Barrier said she crouched to his level. She asked if he had a certain document, and he handed it to her. She copied it for him and rescheduled his case. Then she gave him her phone number and email address. That way, he could double-check the time before coming to court.

“He said, ‘You know what, I want to apologize for my behavior earlier,’” Barrier said. “’You know, you just come to the courthouse and people tell you things, and this case is for a lot of money.’”

Barrier sympathized. “I’ve been to places and people just tell you, ‘no,’” she said. “And then you find out, it’s not true.”

Barrier said she focuses on finding ways to get people a “yes.” And her coworkers bear witness to those efforts. The first time Clerk of Court Archie Smith — the courthouse’s chief administrator — met Barrier, she was dealing with a particularly disagreeable woman whose case was being transferred to Superior Court.

“She spread oil upon those troubled waters,” Smith recalled. “The next thing you know, they’re walking off together like best chums.”

Trial Court Coordinator Suzanne Hansen, who works under Barrier, marvels that her boss “never forgets a face or a name.”

Employees and laypeople alike frequently find themselves in Barrier’s wing of the courthouse, lost. Everyone in the wing is happy to give directions, Hansen said. But, she said, Barrier likes to accompany a person to make sure they get to the right place.

A ‘muddled’ work-life balance

During a recent interview, Barrier handled various mini crises typical of a Tuesday morning in the courthouse.

She got a response on her service animal question within half an hour: They are allowed in courtrooms, but a judge can order them removed if they interrupt proceedings.  

Barrier’s next challenge came from two out-of-county court interpreters who said other courthouses usually provide badges to ease their comings and goings. The Durham County court interpreter, Maria Owens, appeared sheepish as she approached Barrier.

Barrier immediately opened a cabinet and pulled out an ID card labeled “court reporter.”

“Can you send an email to me and we can work on getting interpreter badges?” she told Owens after handing her the badge.

Barrier remains in her office until 7 p.m. most evenings, Hansen said. And when she goes home, Barrier said she often takes calls at night and on the weekends.

Asked about work-life balance, Barrier said, “I don’t think I really have one. I think it’s all just muddled together.”

This devotion has limited her personal life. Barrier said she’s too busy to take care of so much as a “hermit crab,” even if she kept it in her office.

“It would surely die,” she said.

The note wall

 But Barrier doesn’t regret the time she devotes to her career. Instead, she sees her “work family” as essential to her life.

A portion of a wall in Barrier’s office testifies to her impact on this “family.” Countless cards, notes and letters clutter the space, many attesting to Barrier’s kindness and service.

“Dear Deneen, Maria and Patty,” Barrier’s former boss, Kathy Stuart, wrote in a handwritten note to Barrier and two others. “Thank you for traveling 350+ miles to Richmond last month so that you could surround me with love on a tough evening.” 

“Thank you again for your usual, wonderfully professional courtesies extended to me during my recent stop at your courthouse,” wrote attorney John Bussian in a typed letter. “Arranging hearing time within 24 hours and a way to obtain a copy of the file within minutes are truly remarkable feats of public service. No wonder I feel, in all the other courts in which I appear across the country, none approach the Durham County Superior Court!”

Barrier pointed out that she spends more time with her coworkers than she would with a spouse and children at home. She fought to contain her emotion while looking at the notes.

“Sometimes, when it’s tough and you need a bit of support, it’s good for me to go to that wall,” she said, blinking back tears.

 

PHOTO ABOVE: Deneen Barrier sits at her desk at the Durham County Courthouse. Photo by Josie Vonk, the 9th Street Journal.

 

 

Despite COVID safety measures, trials collide at courthouse

In defiance of the sign outside, marking its maximum capacity at 16 people, Courtroom 7A was packed.

Twenty-five prospective jurors occupied almost every bench not cordoned off for social distancing. They sat not just on the blue X’s designating assigned seats, but also in half the chairs of the jury box, as well as a bench normally reserved for the defense’s friends and family.  

This wasn’t supposed to happen. 

The Durham County Courthouse has taken a cautious approach to jury trials during the pandemic. These proceedings were paused between March 2020 and January 2021 over COVID-19 concerns. And since restarting jury trials, administrators have fought to ensure that no more than one of them happens at once.

But the last week of September, for the first time in a year and a half, two jury trials overlapped. This unexpected event, the cause of the crowd in Courtroom 7A, left court officials bending rules and making last-minute judgment calls.

“In my mind, I couldn’t see it,” Trial Court Administrator E. Deneen Barrier said, “but apparently it happened.” 

How it happened

There are two ways in which limiting jury trials helps prevent COVID-19 spread.

For one thing, it reduces the number of people in the courthouse at any given time. And in Superior Court, where the county’s most serious civil and criminal disputes are settled, the one-a-day strategy keeps proceedings socially distanced in the spacious Courtroom 7D.

Courtroom 7A, a fraction of the size, typically hosts civil matters that don’t need a jury.

But courthouses are complicated, and sometimes things don’t go as planned. As defendants take plea deals and plaintiffs settle out of court, many scheduled jury trials never make it to the courtroom.

“A lot is up in the air when everybody walks in the door,” Barrier said.

The morning of Sept. 27, it was still unclear whether a scheduled criminal trial would start that day, Trial Court Coordinator Suzanne Hansen said in an email. Another jury trial was set to begin in civil court on Sept. 28. However, Hansen believed this would be postponed if the criminal trial moved forward.

The criminal trial did move forward – but Judge Michael O’Foghludha, who was to preside over the civil case, pushed for his proceedings to begin anyway. He got his way, resulting in the surprise double-booking.

Last-minute questions

The criminal jury trial involved an alleged assault, kidnapping and strangling in June 2018. And the civil trial stemmed from a September 2019 incident in which a Prius struck the plaintiff while she was crossing Duke University Road. 

Prospective jurors for the civil trial gathered downstairs, while those assigned to the criminal case milled around the seventh floor of the courthouse, wearing red “juror” badges. The court had empaneled these Durham residents the previous day.

Meanwhile, in Courtroom 7A, O’Foghludha briefed attorneys in the civil case on how a jury trial would work in a room that hadn’t seen one since before the pandemic. O’Foghludha had ready answers to basic questions about where the courts would hold prospective jurors and who would be in the courtroom at any given time. 

And he appeared in good humor, as he voiced his thoughts on dismissing prospective jurors.

“They may be terrible jurors, and you may not want them. In fact, you probably don’t want them,” he told the attorneys. “But I’m not excusing them from doing their civic duty.”

The clerk, meanwhile, appeared stressed. The trial would wind up taking a toll on the woman, who took a day off from work after it concluded.

O’Foghludha still had to resolve some issues on the fly.

Would jurors and attorneys get separate bathrooms, or would they need to share one? (They’d be sharing.) Could a deputy give jurors directions to the courtroom, or would they need an escort? (After consulting with the bailiff, O’Foghludha decided that would depend on how well jurors responded to instructions.)

At one point, even the judge tripped over the tricky logistics. He’d originally been talking as if 30 jurors would be in the courtroom at once, but realized midway through the briefing that there would only be 25.

Finally, with most details settled, O’Foghludha heard a few pretrial motions and then called for jurors to enter.

A grueling process

Selecting a jury is rarely quick or simple. But Courtroom 7A’s limited seating made this empanelment even harder than usual.

O’Foghludha acknowledged the challenges while welcoming prospective jurors.

“I know the question that’s on everyone’s mind right now is, ‘Oh my, how long is this going to take?’” he said.

To begin, the clerk called 12 names from a stack of shuffled index cards. She then had the 12 line up at the center of the courtroom and assigned each a juror number. Those who weren’t called exited.  

None of this is standard practice in the Durham County Courthouse, where everyone would typically have remained in the courtroom for the next leg of the proceedings.

Even with this smaller crowd, Courtroom 7A still exceeded its maximum capacity of 16 people. In addition to the prospective jurors, the room also held six representatives for the defense and prosecution, as well as the defendant and plaintiff’s spouses, the judge, the clerk, the bailiff and the court reporter. That’s 24 people.

Everyone present was masked, although one man’s mask kept slipping. None of the prospective jurors complained about the number of people in the room. But they generally respected social distancing.

Between 11 a.m. and 4:15 p.m., the prosecution asked a series of questions to determine if any of those summoned were ineligible to serve on the jury.

Some judges allow lawyers to dismiss prospective jurors as soon as they hear something disqualifying. However, O’Foghludha said he’d seen interviewees try to copy what others said in hopes of being disqualified. So he instructed the prosecution to hold off on challenges until it had asked everyone all of its questions. 

The first round of interviews ended with five of the 12 released. A deputy arrived with their replacements, and the prosecution began a new interview cycle.

The seven who’d already been interviewed watched from the benches in weary resignation.

During pretrial proceedings, O’Foghludha told the court he hoped to finish the trial by Oct. 1. In reality, the trial lasted until Oct. 7, with jury empanelment concluding on Sept. 29.

The jury found the plaintiff was not entitled to any damages.

The criminal trial, which ran as usual in Courtroom 7D, finished empaneling jurors toward the end of Sept. 27 and ended with a not guilty verdict on Sept. 29.

Will this happen again?

Before the pandemic, the Durham County Courthouse commonly held multiple jury trials on the same day, said Barrier, the court administrator. It could host up to four at once, though this strained courthouse resources.

The courts will someday return to that level of activity, but it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. September’s double-booking does not mark a shift in the courthouse’s overall approach.

“It’s just happenstance,” Barrier said.

PHOTO ABOVE: Users of the Durham County’s Courthouse must practice social distancing as a COVID safety measure. By Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘This is not a swastika. This is the opposite.’

 

Judge Michael O’Foghludha tried to calm the defendant who wore the mask with the backwards swastika.

“Don’t get upset,” the judge said in soothing tones, as they talked over each other. “Don’t get upset. Nothing bad will happen unless you get upset.”

“I hope President Trump come back in power, to change all that’s happening here to our advantage,” the defendant, Murphy Stephens Wamala, replied.

Among the courtroom’s few onlookers, two public defenders and three men in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits all stared with interest.

Courthouses are full of characters — the inveterate case watcher; the wily, enigmatic defendant; the salt-of-the-earth judge. But even by Durham County Courthouse standards, Wamala was among the most disturbing of those who made an appearance on Sept. 21. 

Wamala, 52, is Black, but he claims that “there was no slavery” and that “Hitler helped build this country.”

He was in court for a parole violation. On Sept. 18, after he failed to show up to a scheduled hearing, police arrested him and “beat my ass almost to death,” he said in an interview. 

Three days later, he came to court for the hearing to declare what kind of legal representation he’d have.

Dressed in a camouflage hunting jacket and matching pants, Wamala arrived for his hearing just before 10 o’clock. In the vestibule between Courtroom 7D and the hallway, he spoke to a deputy for several minutes.

“[The deputy] asked, ‘What are you here for? What’s your name?’” said Wamala, who installs and maintains automatic car washes for a living. “I said, ‘What does that have to do with you?’”

The deputy told Wamala to wait in the hall, where he remained for over an hour.

Wamala’s probation violation came during the two years of freedom he’s been granted before serving a 12- to 24-month prison sentence. This sentence stems from a July 2020 incident in which Wamala struck and injured another driver, then drove away – all while his license was suspended.

Wamala’s rap sheet is full of other traffic violations. He’s received two driving while impaired (DWI) convictions: one in Chatham County in 2012 and one in Durham County in 2019. He pleaded guilty in 2012 to driving with a revoked license. And he was found responsible in 2018 for driving with an expired license and running a stop sign.

Wamala has also had numerous traffic charges dismissed in Durham County, including two DWI charges, two charges of driving with an altered tag or vehicle registration, and one charge each of driving without insurance, registration or a valid license. All since 2012.

 But why did Wamala choose to Sharpie a swastika onto his white facemask before coming to court? He laughed when asked.

“This is not a swastika,” he said. “This is the opposite.” 

A counterclockwise swastika, he explained, was a Roman symbol for freedom. He likes displaying it so that he can see how many people are ignorant about the difference between this version and a clockwise swastika.

Even so, Wamala — whose parents are from Uganda and Nigeria and who grew up in Sweden — expressed respect for Adolf Hitler and defended the Holocaust. While waiting in the hall, Wamala also offered other political views at length and with little prompting. He applauded those who stormed the U.S. Capitol in January, sang the praises of British imperialism, and called the “American Negro” corrupt and violent. Most of his opinions defied historical facts. 

Wamala, who spoke in a loud voice,  threw his whole body into his speech — once sliding to the far side of the hallway bench to illustrate a point, and another time pulling up a sleeve to show injuries allegedly left by police officers. He ping-ponged from topic to topic, talking almost nonstop.

One rare silence fell when Wamala spent several seconds watching a woman walk past on her way to court. Dressed in unassuming street clothes – skinny jeans and a T-shirt – she returned his stare.

At another point, Wamala also gave a friendly greeting to a passing man, who nodded back.

The deputy called Wamala into the courtroom around 11:15 a.m. He entered and stood at the center of the room, facing Judge O’Foghludha with his hands behind his back. An air of curiosity and caution hung in the room.

“Is there anything I have to say to the court?” Wamala said.

The judge informed him he just needed to decide on his legal representation. He asked if Wamala wanted Dan Meier, a public defender, to represent him.

“Probably,” Wamala said. 

The deputy approached Wamala with a clipboard holding a form, and Wamala sat down to fill it out with his help. After a few minutes, the two retreated to the vestibule. 

They stood facing each other, looking at the forms: the man in the reversed swastika face mask, toe-to-toe with justice.