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Posts published by “Kristi Sturgill”

Three couples, three kisses in the Durham courthouse

Jarinette Gonzalez and Yeison Reyes gazed into each other’s eyes and drew closer.  They had just been married by Durham County Magistrate Aminah Thompson, and Gonzalez had a big smile as their lips touched. For a wedding kiss, though, it was surprisingly short. Just a quick smooch.

Ivonne Ardon and Jose Hernandez opted for more choreography – grasping hands in a four way knot. But the kiss itself was just a peck.

And then Henry Cruz and Bessy Zaldivar. Wow. They were dressed casually, the bride all in black (a blazer and slacks plus leather booties) and Cruz in white canvas shoes and a navy button-down with fine polka dots. 

But their kiss was the most spirited. They were giddy as Zaldivar put her hands on the sides of Cruz’s head and stretched her fingers into his wavy dark hair. Their puckered lips met and separated – again and again and again. Four kisses to begin their life together.

Depending on the couple, the weddings in Magistrate’s Courtroom 3 are quick or passionate or sometimes even a little nervous.

Every weekday, magistrates conduct weddings at the Durham County Courthouse. Weddings continue during the coronavirus pandemic, with ceremonies held between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m or between 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Couples don’t have to sign up in advance for the ceremony. All they need is a $60 marriage license. 

In the courthouse, couples can have a wedding on a whim.

Courthouse weddings are an eclectic mix – grooms wearing polka-dot shirts and brides in black. Guests capture the moment in iPhone videos and sometimes ask bystanders to act as wedding photographers. Some bring friends and relatives; others come alone.

For working-class Durham residents, courthouse weddings are efficient and inexpensive. Couples can knock venue planning, officiant selection, and the photographer search off their prenuptial to-do list. 

But the couples get what they plan and pay for. Weddings last about seven minutes with no frills: no music, no procession, no sermon, and no prayer.

Gonzalez and Reyes

It is Valentine’s Day and Thompson has brightened the small, windowless magistrate’s courtroom by wearing a bright red blazer. 

Reyes, 19, and Gonzalez, 23, stand shoulder-to-shoulder, ready for their vows. They met just five months ago when a mutual friend introduced them. Reyes is from Honduras, and Gonzalez is from Puerto Rico.

Witnesses record Jarinette Gonzalez and Yeison Reyes’s wedding on iPhone cameras. Photo by Kristi Sturgill | The 9th Street Journal

Gonzalez’s father Victor Gonzalez and witness Carmen Morales stand beside them, watching through iPhone screens so they can simultaneously record video and observe the vows. Gonzalez’s father lowers his iPhone camera for a moment and opens a small box. He hands Reyes a band for his bride. 

As Thompson continues her scripted Spanish vows, Gonzalez holds her left hand in her right, admiring the new wedding ring. 

After Thompson arrives at the “beso” part of the script – the kiss – she sits down and watches the couple smooch.

Wedding words

Thompson’s coworker, Magistrate Terry Fisher, says the Durham Courthouse does many of his weddings in Spanish. “I don’t know if it’s half, but we do a significant number,” he says. 

Some magistrates know the entire ceremony script in Spanish, while others switch to the language only for the “to have and to hold” section.

Though English and Spanish are by far the most common languages, Fischer also remembers couples who spoke Mandarin or Vietnamese. Sometimes the couple will bring interpreters, but that’s not always the case. 

“If you’re here for litigation, whatever language you speak, we can request an interpreter from the Administrative Office of the Courts,” Fisher said. “But those people are not available to us for weddings. So we just have to do the best we can.”

Ivonne Ardon and Jose Hernandez

Hernandez, 31, and Ardon, 28, are both from El Salvador. 

A delicate golden watch dangles off Ardon’s left wrist, and a new wedding band sits on her ring finger. Hernandez faces her lightly holding both her palms until Ardon raises her hand to admire the ring. Then they grasp hands in a four way knot.

Ardon tosses her head to move her bangs out of her eyes. She raises her chin and watches the magistrate say, “Puede besar a la novia.” You can kiss the bride.

They move their hands from the four-way clasp into a hug and lean in for a quick peck of the lips. 

Ivonne Ardon and Jose Hernandez hug after their wedding in Magistrate’s Courtroom 3. Photo by Kristi Sturgill.

Ardon’s hand slides down Hernandez’s pale brown coat. She turns toward her audience of five, and she smiles and claps. 

The couple and their friends file into the 3rd-floor hallway. They pose for a photo along a window that looks out on a cloudy downtown-Durham day. The slanted and pixelated photo is hardly picture-perfect, but it captures the community that will support Ardon and Hernandez in their new life.

In photo at top, Henry Cruz and Bessy Zaldivar embrace for their marital smooch. Photo by Kristi Sturgill | The 9th Street Journal

Local partnerships help feed families during pandemic

On April 16, the Durham Public Schools Foundation, Food Insight Group, and the Durham Hotel began providing breakfast and lunch to local students in a new partnership called Durham FEAST. 

The announcement came after Durham Public Schools struggled to maintain a safe food distribution program.

Durham Public Schools had been offering free meals to students since March 23. But after learning that an employee at Bethesda Elementary School had contracted the coronavirus, the school system discontinued the program in early April.

Local families didn’t know where their next meal would come from. So several organizations stepped up. 

The DPS Foundation, a community-led nonprofit that supports the school system, took on the bulk of student food distribution. It ramped up its weekly food delivery program to deliver meals to 1,500 families, and then joined the Durham FEAST initiative.

A Riverside High School senior Elijah King also offered his own solution, partnering with local businesses to start the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative. They set up shop in front of Geer Street Garden and distribute sandwiches. 

And Catholic Charities and Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina continue their food pantries.

They don’t know how long school cafeterias and local restaurants will be closed, but these distribution services anticipate working for the long haul. 

“In any instance when something like the coronavirus is happening in Durham, the community comes together,” said King. “It’s like New York, but on a very small scale.”

A community FEAST

As Durham FEAST launched its partnership on Thursday, thousands of Durham families flocked to DPS schools — while staying six feet apart — to pick up free breakfast and lunch from Durham restaurants. The provisions are meant to serve all children under 18 years old for several days. 

The Restaurant at The Durham, Monuts, Spicy Green, Southern Harvest Catering, and Beyu Caffe were first to offer meals. Kids may have a buckle streusel, a banana muffin, or overnight oats for breakfast. Lunch options included quinoa chicken or vegetarian spinach alfredo pasta. Family-style casseroles and shelf ingredients were also available. 

Depending on the location, pick-ups are on Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays. Some locations open at 11 a.m. and others at 12 p.m. Volunteers drive meals to families that are unable to pick up food.

“The main thing that we need right now is even more volunteers, especially with the new announcement,” said Katie Spencer Wright, communications manager for the DPS Foundation.

Over 900 volunteers pitched in during the DPS Foundation’s previous program, including Durham Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull and Durham City Council members Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero.

“Everyone is happy to be out of the house and enjoying working together on this, which is what we need to do,” said Spencer Wright. “We need to have each other’s backs.” 

Community donations are also essential to support the ongoing program. Funds go toward meals and paying restaurant employees’ wages.

Over 1,100 Durham community members have donated funds to the meal program. Mayor Steve Schewel announced he’d match all donations up to $10,000 to the previous initiative. Durham songwriter and DPS dad Hiss Golden Messenger pledged all proceeds from his new record to the meal effort. (Spencer Wright says it’s “great quarantine music.”)

Federal school meal funding and Durham County also back the initiative.

A student-run initiative

As the coronavirus escalated in Durham, King, a Riverside High School senior, became concerned about small businesses. He wondered how he could support local restaurants while addressing community food shortages.

He presented a couple ideas to friends and businesses: An ad campaign? Business partnerships?

“Everyone shot them down,” he said.

Then, he thought of Grant Ruhlman, the owner of Homebucha Kombucha. Ruhlman had heard King speak at a climate strike and told King to reach out if he ever needed help.

Together, Ruhlman and King decided to work with local businesses to provide free lunches. Homebucha Kombucha, Lil Farm, and Geer Street Garden joined in the effort, which they named Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative.

Every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., they set up outside Geer Street Garden and distribute about 100 meals. Community members wait for food, standing in distanced lines and listening to amplified music. 

Lunch selections vary day-by-day, including pimento cheese, turkey, or BLT sandwiches. Sides may be yogurt, bread, fresh fruit, or veggies.

The initiative runs on monetary donations to provide food from the farm and restaurants. 

Within a week of announcing the initiative, their GoFundMe campaign burgeoned, reaching nearly $35,000 in donations. That would cover sandwiches, masks, water bottles, and four employees’ wages for a couple weeks. 

“But as soon as we pay all of the bills this week, that money is going to be gone,” King said. 

He needs to raise more money to keep the initiative running until May 15. If he runs into trouble, he’ll consider decreasing the production cost of meals.

“No matter what, we are going to continue paying living wages. That’s what they made before, and that’s what they’re going to be making,” King said.

Other resources

Local food banks continue offering meals and accepting donations during the pandemic.

The Durham Community Food Pantry reopened April 10 after issuing new guidelines to protect volunteers and clients from the virus. The pantry, run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, operates from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

As of April 9, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina had distributed 11,132 boxes of 20 meals each during the coronavirus outbreak. They operate in a 34-county region and work with local nutritionists to determine needs.

At top: Volunteers distribute meals at Glenn Elementary School as part of a new DPS Foundation initiative to address food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Corey Pilson, The 9th Street Journal

Virtual arts and exercise classes offer innovation and community

At the end of class at Empower Dance Studio, director Nicole Oxendine tells her students to unmute their Zoom sound. They extend their arms to the sides of the screen, as if holding hands in their usual “empower circle.” 

“That’s our connection, that’s like our church. Faith is ingrained in everything we do,” Oxendine says.

They “tendu” their right foot toward the camera — even though it may not fit in the video frame.

Oxendine counts to three and the students yell “empower.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Oxendine will teach dance over Zoom. Her studio is among other Durham arts and exercise studios that recently made the switch. It has required many adaptations: bathrooms with tile floors have become tap-dancing studios. Sneakers have replaced blocks in yoga classes. iPhone cameras have sufficed for photography workshops. 

They’re temporary fixes, but the Zoom classes help Durham maintain its artsy flair during a trying time. Durhamites stay connected virtually as local businesses try to stay afloat. 

Dance like Zoom is watching

March 21 was the first day of what Oxendine called the “testing” period for online dance classes. Her studio started with a “Tiny Tots” Zoom class for 2 year olds.

She’s optimistic that students will continue taking classes. Despite the quick transition to online dance, class attendance remained above 50%.

Still, she said, “we don’t know what the final (financial) repercussions are going to be.”

Oxendine held a Facebook Live meeting to update parents about creative modifications for dancing at home.

Bathrooms with tile floors have become tap-dancing studios. Kitchen chairs make decent ballet barres. “And if there’s an across-the-floor combination, we recommend you try it outside,” she said. 

It’s not only a question of staying in shape and maintaining dance technique. Empower Dance Studio teachers also want to reinforce the studio’s values over Zoom.

“Faith is a core value of Empower. We have faith in ourselves, we believe in ourselves” she said. “You have your own power, you have your sense of agency, and you have a gift.”

Still, faith has been difficult to cultivate over Wifi. Oxendine hopes to encourage faith and community by allowing dancers to lament about the coronavirus or share their stay-at-home experiences. She’ll ask them about their homework or TV shows they’ve been watching. 

“These kids, they have anxiety around what’s happening now, too. I tell the teachers to take a minute to check and sit and be present with them,” she said.

‘A la carte’ yoga

Though the online yoga scene has been growing for a while, Yoga Off East founder Kathryn Smith hadn’t thought her studio would join in. 

But once the coronavirus outbreak began, customers started reaching out to Smith, saying they’d pay for online classes. One yoga instructor offered to share her Zoom account. 

Fifty customers signed up for the studio’s first online yoga class on March 21. 

Classes have taken new forms. Music is optional because Zoom’s sound quality is unreliable. Students can choose whether to use video, enabling them to opt for the instructor to correct their movements over the screen or not. 

“There’s an a la carte menu of options that people don’t typically have,” Smith said. 

Students can do prop-free yoga, or they can try household substitutions: a sneaker for a block, a pillow for a bolster, and a towel for a mat. 

It’s been going well enough that Smith is considering making online classes a new staple for Yoga Off East. 

“Our 9th Street community, we have people traveling for work constantly,” she said. “I always see us as a small neighborhood studio, but it looks like we will be moving in the direction of expanding our online offerings.” 

Smith is appreciative that her customers have wanted to take online classes. But she misses the community-building element of meeting in-person. 

“(Online classes) meet the needs of alternative ways to feel connected and not get sucked into isolation,” she said. “But the energy of an in-person class is really irreplaceable.”

A new perspective

Last year, Martha Hoelzer offered photography lessons during a pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland, that focused on spirituality beyond organized religion.

“I was teaching components of using photography as a means to delve deeper spiritually,” said Hoelzer, who runs A Breath of Fresh Air Photography.

She was set to teach photography again in April at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, NC. Now, she’ll offer a photography workshop over Zoom on Thursdays from 1 to 2 p.m. 

Students will take photos from different perspectives in their homes, maybe standing on a chair or crouching behind a couch. She anticipates they’ll use iPhones, Androids, and iPads: that’s how it was in Scotland.

Photography student captures images while quarantining in her home. Photo contributed by Sienna Smith

While part of the upcoming class will teach smartphone semantics, she wants to focus more on “composition and challenging people to think about their perspectives.” She’ll also encourage each student to share 10 or 20 recent photos they’ve taken as a way to facilitate discussion and inspiration. 

Hoelzer is no stranger to self-isolating. She’s gone through multiple severe concussions — two since 2016 — and has recently been working on a photography project about brain injuries called What Lies Beneath.

She compares the concussion experience to quarantining. 

“What we’re doing now isn’t that unsimilar to what I’ve had to do off and on over the last four years. Minus the fact that you can’t enjoy things like cooking because somebody whose brain is injured might not be able to follow the directions,” she said. “You can’t watch TV, or you can’t read a book.”

Hoelzer hopes that as students crouch to get a new perspective for their photograph, they may also gain a new perspective on quarantining and the coronavirus.

“Let’s reframe the current situation of what we’re having to face,” she said. “Turn lemons into lemonade or whatever.”

At top: Yoga Off East students finish a Zoom class in Namaste pose. Photo contributed by Kathryn Smith

Schewel announces stay-at-home order to slow spread of virus

In a bold effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Mayor Steve Schewel announced a sweeping stay-at-home policy that will limit when people can leave their homes but allow a host of exemptions for everything from grocery shopping to doctor visits to playing tennis.

He said it was critical to act now before Durham is overwhelmed by the virus.

“This is our window for social distancing to work. This is our window to intervene,” he said. 

He said the stay-at-home order assures that the maximum number of residents will self-isolate while still keeping essential businesses open. Those businesses include grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, and stores selling vital household goods. 

Schewel said the policy also allows Durham residents to continue to go outdoors for exercise, but he emphasized everyone must practice social distancing. He said contact sports – he mentioned basketball — were prohibited. But walking, hiking, running, biking, golfing and playing tennis are permitted.

The order will be in effect from Thursday at 6 p.m. until April 30, although Schewel said it could be extended or shortened.

Schewel said the order is legally enforceable, although no one will be arrested unless they “continuously and egregiously offend.”

Durham County has the state’s second-highest number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus – 74 in Tuesday evening’s tally. Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, has, 142.

“There is no need to fear this virus if we act. And the way to act is to stay at home,” Schewel said.

While the number of cases in Durham remains low, Schewel noted that the trend line of coronavirus in the United States is following that of Italy. He said it was urgent to act now to prevent the same magnitude of fatalities that occurred there.

He said he also hopes the order will keep the Duke Hospital from being overwhelmed with cases.

The order includes an exemption for educational institutions, including North Carolina Central University and Duke University, to stay open for essential research. 

Wake County was set to make an announcement Wednesday about a stay-at-home order, the Herald Sun reportedSchewel said he expects the order to be very similar.

A stay-at-home order has not yet been announced statewide, but Schewel is hopeful the governor will adopt one soon. He has been in contact with other North Carolina cities and counties which will adopt similar policies soon. 

“Our cities are all experiencing this same crisis,” he said.

Mecklenburg announced a policy similar to Durham’s Tuesday afternoon that orders residents to stay at home and bans gatherings of more than 10 people. The order limits travel on public roads to those needing medical care, food, or other trips vital to “well-being.” Mayors of nearby towns Cornelius, Matthews, Davidson, Mint Hill, Huntersville, and Pineville also signed the order.

The  stay-at-home approach by the North Carolina cities and counties is similar to policies in 18 states, 31 counties, and 13 cities as of Tuesday, according to a New York Times summary. Soon the majority of Americans will live under similar restrictions, the Times said.

Punishments vary by location. Violators in Hawaii may face up to a year in jail or $5,000 in fines. 

Schewel’s stay-at-home order followed escalating restrictions in the city. On March 13, he ordered a state of emergency restricting gatherings to fewer than 100 people. He later expanded the order to close gyms, health clubs, and theaters. 

Then, on March 17, Governor Roy Cooper banned dining in at restaurants and bars.

On Monday, Durham closed all city facilities, including City Hall, police headquarters, fire stations, playgrounds, and park restrooms. Parks, trails, and greenways remained open.

City, county declare emergency over virus

The city and county of  Durham have each declared a state of emergency to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

The city’s declaration prohibits gatherings of 100 or more people in buildings owned or co-owned with the county such as the Durham Performing Arts Center, Carolina Theatre, Durham Arts Council, and the City-County Convention Center. The city declaration expires March 28.

“We know that social distancing is one of the most important ways of keeping us all safe. I know this will be a hardship on venues like DPAC and the Carolina Theatre, and I am very grateful for their close cooperation as we make these decisions together,” Mayor Steve Schewel said in a statement.

The county’s declaration, which is effective until it is rescinded, provides further restrictions. 

It says any gathering of 100 or more people in the county should be canceled or postponed and it recommends that people in Durham maintain a 6-foot “social distance.” 

It also says individuals must comply with quarantine orders and that county public health officials must have “cooperation from the public and unobstructed access to persons, records, residences and facilities” to investigate coronavirus cases. Failure to comply with either quarantine orders or the investigations is a criminal violation of state law, the county says.

The emergency declaration also says county and city utility services will not disconnect residents for failing to pay their bills, and it urges private utilities to adopt the same approach.

Durham courts will delay most hearings and trials because of virus precautions

The Durham County Courthouse will be pretty quiet for the next month.

The Durham County District Attorney’s Office announced Friday that starting Monday, March 16, almost all cases scheduled for the next 30 days will be postponed until no earlier than April 16 because of concerns about exposing people to the coronavirus. 

“Recognizing that hundreds of people visit the Durham County Courthouse on a daily basis, these changes are aimed at reducing traffic in the courthouse and accommodating those who are ill or at high-risk of illness due to COVID-19,” the DA’s office said in a news release.

The announcement follows directives from North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley about which cases may continue and a requirement that local clerks post notices directing people not to enter the courthouse if they’ve been exposed to the virus.

While the Durham Courthouse will remain open, only “emergency” proceedings will go on. These include bond, probable cause, and some probation hearings. The courts will continue to hear requests for restraining orders and domestic violence protective orders. And grand juries that have already been empaneled will continue to operate. 

Beasley also allowed exceptions for remotely-held proceedings and those that judges determine will not jeopardize participants’ health or safety. 

Online services, such as eFilings and payments, will also continue.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘You think you’re helping someone, but it hurts’

Durham Habitat for Humanity had been trying to help Victoria Dorsey buy a house since 2016. They set their sights on a new Chapel Hill Road home for Dorsey, her husband Otis Johnson, and her 13-year-old daughter Jamila Dorsey.

Over three years later, those aspirations ended in a Superior Court trial in courtroom 6A of the Durham County Courthouse. Onlookers watched as the trial morphed from an amicable discussion of mistakes to a resentful blame-game. 

When Lakeisha Minor, Habitat for Humanity’s family services director, was helping Dorsey close on the house, Minor ran into some roadblocks. First, Dorsey’s subletters missed a rent payment. Then, she falsified some work hours that she needed to purchase the home. 

As the Chapel Hill Road home construction was nearing completion, Dorsey still hadn’t paid off her debt. Habitat wouldn’t let her purchase the house until the outstanding debt was paid. 

“We decided that once the house was completed, then we would allow her to move in and rent the property until she paid off those collections,” Minor said from the witness stand.

On July 18, 2018, Dorsey signed a five-month, 13-day lease agreement with Habitat for Humanity. That would allow her to stay in the new house until the New Year. In the lease agreement, Dorsey agreed that she’d keep her debt under a capped amount. 

But in Dec. 2018, Dorsey decided to cosign for a new car, Minor explained. “When she was cleared into the (housing) program, it was clear that she couldn’t afford more debt. Her ratios were outside what she needed to qualify to purchase a house.” 

At that point, Minor urged Dorsey to take her name off the car loan. It was a recent loan, so they both assumed it wouldn’t prove too difficult. 

“But that didn’t happen,” Minor said flatly.

But Habitat for Humanity, again, gave Dorsey grace.

Habitat for Humanity granted Dorsey three more lease extensions, allowing her to rent the apartment from Jan. 1, 2019, through May 31, 2019, according to Dorsey’s affidavit. Each month, she paid the $650 rent.

In June, Dorsey didn’t extend the lease, she just handed over the $650. Habitat for Humanity accepted the money. 

But then Habitat ran out of patience. On July 9, 2019, Habitat for Humanity sent Dorsey a notice: it was terminating her lease, and she’d have to move out by Aug. 9, 2019.

“Anything from the defense?” Judge Clayton Jones said in a routine fashion. 

Dorsey’s attorney Sarah D’Amato stood up from the chair, seizing an opportunity to change the momentum of the case.

“At this time, I’d like to move to a directed verdict,” said D’Amato, a Legal Aid of North Carolina attorney. 

On Aug. 15, Habitat for Humanity had filed an eviction complaint against Dorsey. It was just six days after Dorsey should have vacated the home, D’Amato argued. And, otherwise, move-out dates don’t come until the term ends at the end of the month.

“Any notice to vacate has to end at the end of the term,” D’Amato said, citing case law from 1898. “Therefore, based on longstanding case law, you will find that the notice that was sent on July 9 was not sufficient notice.” 

“I’m going to side with the defendant in this case,” Judge Jones said, signaling that Dorsey won.

D’Amato and Daron Satterfield, the plaintiff’s attorney, shook hands. Then, D’Amato and Minor walked toward the exit: D’Amato with a grin, and Minor with her lips pursed. 

“It’s a catch-22,” Minor said. “You think you’re helping someone, but it hurts.”

Archie Smith: the unlikely rise of a Durham native and Atticus Finch fan

Archie Smith spoke to the young woman the day before she was murdered.

He had just started practicing law and saw the woman in the old Durham courthouse. She told him she was concerned about his client, who was charged with a violent crime.

“Look, are you up here today to see if you can get him out on bond?” she asked Smith. 

“Yes, I am,” he told her.

“Please don’t do that. I’m the victim. I’m going to get attacked. If you get him out on bond, he’s going to hurt me.”

‘Ma’am, I’m a lawyer, and I have an obligation to represent the best interest of my client. I’m compelled to do that as an officer of this court.”

Today, he can only remember that she was a school teacher, but he can’t recall her name. He was an attorney, “young and stupid. Full of myself,” he says.

“Sure enough, I got him out. The next day I was up at the jailhouse, and he’d killed her,” Smith says.

Today, Smith says he still carries a sense of guilt from the woman’s death.

“The woman looked me right square in the eye and predicted it. What it taught me was that hubris has no place in my life. If I had not been as callow, if I had been more mature at the time and listened and believed, she may still be alive today.”

He tries to bring that humility to his job every day as the Durham clerk of Superior Court. It may sound like a humdrum job, but it’s actually makes him one of the most powerful people in the courthouse. While the media eye watches District Attorney Satana Deberry or the defense attorneys, Smith not only manages the vital records of the courts, but he also acts as a judge  in cases about who’s competent to manage their finances and their legal affairs. 

Step into Smith’s trinket-filled office on the second floor and you’ll discover one of the most interesting characters of the courthouse, a native Durhamite who keeps the place running and tries to create community among the employees. 

‘All rise for the judge’

In North Carolina, court clerks have sweeping powers. Smith oversees the vital court records; he’s judge for about 46 proceedings, and he manages about 40% of Judicial Branch employees. Since becoming clerk, he’s aimed to build community among the staff.

Smith’s biggest responsibilities include controlling the inflow and outflow of court funds and hearing probate cases, where people quarrel over a dead relative’s will. And much of the time that he acts as judge, it’s up to him to keep and file the records.

Smith, 69, is a folksy grandpa with a fondness for Atticus Finch from “To Kill A Mockingbird.” He has shaved his white goatee and mustache into an upside-down teardrop shape. His teeth — slightly crooked on top and spaced out on the bottom — are visible when he grins and chuckles.

He talks slowly with a slight Southern drawl, chattering about “hogwash” or “a duck sitting in the water splashing.”

“The funnest part of my job?” He says. “Showing up.”

He puts people at ease. When the assistant clerk announces “All rise for the judge!”, Smith responds with a quick request that they sit, like he’s displeased with the formality.

He then changes to a professional, get-this-case-done approach, says Danielle Briggs, a county attorney at the Department of Social Services, who works with him on competency and guardianship hearings.

“Some judges will be very informal throughout a proceeding, and that will cause problems. (But Smith) makes a very clear switch from ‘Hey everybody. How’s it going?’ to ‘Okay, we’re going to straighten this out.’”

Smith sees many first-timers in his courtroom and in the clerk’s offices. He says that many Durham residents don’t have money to hire a lawyer. He wants to help them represent themselves without overstepping legal boundaries.

“If you’re not involved in the legal system, it’s Greek to you,” he says. “We can give them information and help them get something done and be a servant to ‘em. Make ‘em feel comfortable. Now we can’t do your work for ya, but we can point you.”

Despite his sweeping powers and the fact he’s won reelection since he started 17 years ago, he remains largely unknown in the city. 

Retired attorney Jay Freeman says most people don’t know what any North Carolina clerk does. 

“It’s a very important position,” he says. “It affects more people, quite frankly, than a judge does.”

The mediator

Smith’s office, tucked behind his personal courtroom on the second floor, is filled with an unusual mix of with trinkets and collectibles. A stuffed worm found in local tobacco plants, a Galileo thermometer, a paperback Guide to Texas Etiquette, and about 20 model cars. 

On his credenza, he keeps an 11-by-14 photo of Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He says the convictions and character make him a role model. 

“He was trying to get to the truth,” he says of the legendary character in the novel and film. “In order to get to the truth, he sacrificed a lot. He was representing an unpopular cause. His community, with his daughter there, and all his neighbors there. He could have been ostracized from his neighborhood.” 

Smith sighs. “But it was so important to him. I have to admire somebody like that.”

He thinks a lot about integrity when the hard cases come, and there have been a lot of them since that young teacher died.

He sometimes has to keep parents from accessing their minor children’s trust funds, even when they just want to pay a utility or buy their kids a Christmas gift. He recalls denying competency to an ingenious but deceitful man even though people were backing his independence. 

He often has to say “no” – and that’s not always popular.

Satana Deberry, the Durham district attorney, says Smith tries harder than anyone else to be a mediator at the courthouse. 

“Archie is like ‘hail fellow well met.’ He has a classic Durham story that I don’t think we see a lot anymore. He is the white kid who grew up poor in Durham, really has been working his whole life to get where he is,” she says. “I think he sees everybody on the other side of the counter the same way he sees himself. I don’t think he makes any differentiation.”

Lifelong Durhamite

Smith was born at Duke University Hospital, delivered newspapers, and went to Durham High School, which is now just a memory. He recalls eating shaved ice from tall glasses in a Duke cafeteria and catching tadpoles in Dixie cups from the Duke Gardens. He’s a lifelong Durhamite, and he’s nostalgic about the past. 

“Well, Durham is home, gosh,” he says. 

He recalls a “happening” Durham with full employment and prosperity. He says it was the envy of the Raleighites and Caryans, if you will. 

“They don’t have something that Durham has,” he says. “We have a number of historic buildings that give a certain panache. The past tied to the future. Old warehouses and things, enough of that has been saved.”

Many of his office trinkets point to Durham’s past such as a nametag for his predecessor James Leo Carr, a key to the old courthouse vault, and some Ever Ready Oil to lubricate the key. 

His trinkets are “a reminder of the way things used to be. And I like being about the way things used to be,” he says.

He romanticizes watching the film “The Spirit of St. Louis” with his parents and younger brother at the Starlite Drive-In off Club Boulevard. But he says he likes the new, more avant-garde and pedestrian-friendly Durham, too.

“Well, if you don’t change, you’re going to get lost.”

Under N.C.’s ‘homewrecker law,’ adultery can be costly

Danielle King said her affair was over. But on Nov. 23, 2015, her husband Keith King realized her sexual liaisons were continuing.

Looking through phone records, he noticed Danielle and her illicit lover Francisco Huizar III were still communicating – every day. Keith got so mad he picked up his daughter’s high chair tray and slammed it against a table. The noise startled his 2-year-old Elle Annemarie King, who was one room away with Danielle. 

Over the next year, Keith thought the marriage was healing. Danielle, who has blond hair and a big smile, had been posting on Facebook about family trips and their joyful child. 

But then he got a troubling clue from the OnStar system in Danielle’s car. In August 2016, she and Elle were supposedly driving back from Danielle’s parents’ house in Richmond, Virginia. She was running late, so Keith activated the OnStar system and noticed her car was going north on Interstate 95 when it should have gone south. It was headed to Alexandria, Virginia, where Keith knew Huizar had been in the past. 

Danielle had retrieved Huizar from Virginia, dropped Elle off at home, and met Huizar at a hotel, according to a lawsuit.

In 2017, Keith sued Huizar for having sex with his wife and breaking up his marriage. A year later, Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson awarded Keith $8.8 million in punitive and compensatory damages from Huizar under a little-known state law.

Yes, people in North Carolina can sue an illicit lover for having sex with their spouse; it’s called criminal conversation. Or for breaking up their marriage; that’s alienation of affection.

North Carolina is one of six states with the laws — along with Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah. There are about 200 alienation of affection cases in North Carolina each year, according to North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts records. 

“It’s been around forever,” said Adam Bull, who has argued several alienation of affection suits throughout his 30 years as a North Carolina attorney. “Most people probably understand the moral sense it’s wrong; they don’t understand they can be sued for it.”

After the $8.8 million suit, Huizar filed bankruptcy. Danielle and Keith still aren’t done with court. In November 2019, the Court of Appeals considered Danielle’s claim for primary custody of Elle Annemarie. The parties are awaiting the verdict. 

‘Marriage on trial’

A fundamental step in these unusual adultery cases is “putting the marriage on trial,” said Kim Bonuomo, who represents defendants in these cases. To win, plaintiffs have to show they had a fairly stable marriage, and the illicit lover broke it up.

Plaintiffs use letters, photos, family vacations, and descriptions of their sexual activity to prove their marriage was stable before the intruder. 

Keith’s evidence? He and Danielle volunteered and went to church together. They had sex. Danielle started a “Good Mommies Club” as a part of a Mommies United group on Facebook. She even thanked Keith for one of “the coolest jobs ever” with his BMX company on Facebook. 

But he said Huizar changed everything. “My marriage was murdered. It was destroyed,” Keith said during an interview with WRAL in 2018. “What I’ve endured is, I compare it to like a nuclear bomb going off around my surroundings,” he told Good Morning America in 2018. 

In many cases, it’s hard to discern how much of a role the intruder had in the marriage downfall. Bonuomo said she’s never seen a perfectly stable marriage before the affair. 

And blaming the illicit lover gets even messier if there were multiple affairs. 

“(Were they) the cause of the breakup of the marriage just because they were the last person (the spouse) had an affair with?” Bonuomo often wonders. 

‘She’s my wife, man!’

On Jan. 19, 2017, five months after the clandestine trip to retrieve Huizar, Danielle told Keith that her parents were helping her rent an apartment. Huizar, she said, wasn’t even in the state. 

The next day, Keith texted Danielle to ask her to watch Elle while he drove pain medication to his father. But Danielle said she couldn’t; the apartment bathroom lights were out, and she couldn’t fix the breaker. 

Later in the day, Keith drove over to Danielle’s apartment to fix the breaker. But when he arrived, Huizar opened the door. Moments later, Huizar held Keith in a choke hold as Keith cried and pleaded, “She’s my wife, man! She’s my wife. That is my wife, man!”

Danielle stood back, catching it all on video. 

Effective law?

Alienation of affection and criminal conversation cases can only be brought against an illicit lover — there’s no direct recourse against the spouse. But even though an adulterous spouse may not be sued, Bull said they may still get involved in the case. 

“They sometimes end up settling with their spouses so they can leave their new boyfriend or girlfriend out of the picture.”

Bull says the law deters some people from committing adultery. 

“I don’t agree with that,” Bonuomo said. “Ultimately, these cases don’t come up until the marriage is already over.”

In 1984, the North Carolina Court of Appeals successfully overturned alienation of affection in Cannon v. Miller, but then the Supreme Court reversed the ruling. In 2009, the General Assembly approved some limits to the law. The affair had to happen before the spouses separated, and the plaintiff has to sue within three years of the affair.

It’s unlikely that legislators will overturn the law; no North Carolina politician wants to be portrayed as disregarding the sanctity of marriage, Bonuomo said. 

But she doesn’t find the adultery law, which implicates only the illicit lover, to fit in many cases.

“Usually, the marriage is already broken. It would be a very, very rare situation for the underlying marriage to reconcile at that point,” Bonuomo said. 

And once there’s a lawsuit, she said the chances of reconciling the marriage can only get worse. 

‘Rooted and Antiquated’

Alienation of affection and criminal conversation are non-statutory law derived from prior judicial decisions. 

“It’s the belief of many practitioners that these torts are rooted and antiquated ways of thinking that women were considered to be the property of their husbands,” Bonuomo said.

But just because the law is old doesn’t mean it’s defunct, Bull said.

“Are they old? Yes. So are basic principles, like the statute of frauds. But does that mean they should be replaced or no longer serve a purpose? I would disagree with that. Otherwise, there’s not a remedy that’s available to the injured spouse,” Bull said.

Societal norms change, but the adultery law protects monogamous marriage, supporters say. Bull says people should keep monogamy and consent in mind when they’re dating. 

“It’s in the initial process that you should be ferreting out, ‘Hey, is this person single?’” he said. “Before you go much past holding hands, my advice to you is that you pull out your phone, hit record, and make sure they (give consent.)”

Animosity and Acrimony

Following the $8.8 million ruling, Huizar filed bankruptcy. And in Dec. 2017, the Kings divorced.

On Nov. 13, 2019, the King love triangle appeared on the North Carolina Court of Appeals docket, but this time with a new plaintiff: Danielle. She brought a child support and custody appeal.

In January 2017, the District Court in Durham gave Danielle and Keith split custody of Elle Annemarie, but Danielle wants primary custody. She also claims Keith assaulted her and caused her emotional distress.

Bonuomo doesn’t expect alienation of affection cases to end smoothly. 

“I just wonder about the animosity and the acrimony that continues to envelop the family long term when there is an alienation of affection case filed,” she said. “What bothers me is that some of these really keep the fabric of the family ripped apart.”

In the Clerk’s Courtroom, a tender scene of love and the law

Attorney Rob Pochapsky leans over to whisper in Makeai Respass’s ear. It’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and the sun is shining on them from a window in the Clerk’s Courtroom at the Durham courthouse.

“Are you nervous at all?” Pochapsky asks. 

“No,” Makeai says. She has short brown hair and wears glasses with plastic frames that are somewhere between purple and blue. 

“You know that (Makeai) doesn’t understand what she’s saying, right?” her adoptive mother Julia Respass tells Pochapsky. 

“I presume people have more going on upstairs than they show,” Pochapsky replies.

Because she has turned 18, Makeai is now responsible to manage her finances, property, and medical affairs. But she has autism, PTSD, Schizoaffective disorder, and seizures, so her mom has petitioned that she’s not capable to manage those affairs. 

Pochapsky speaks softly to Makeai, explaining that the clerk of court will determine whether she is competent to manage her own affairs and whether her mom should become her legal guardian.

“(The clerk’s) name is Archie Smith,” Pochapsky says. “He’s a good man. What he does is always fair and right. If anyone gets yelled at today, it’s going to be me.”

But no one yells in court today. It’s a tender family affair.

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Smith oversees these little-known incompetency hearings. They occur in a room the size of an elementary school classroom with no bailiff, no court reporter, and usually only one attorney. 

They’re not announced on an online calendar and even Smith said he doesn’t know who will be in court until shortly before the hearing. 

Smith, the clerk of Superior Court, oversees money flow in and out of the Durham courts and serves as judge for special proceedings including guardianship, adoptions and foreclosures. A jovial man, he has a circular face and round cheeks on each side of his white moustache. 

The guardianship cases – he rules on about 150 every year – range from amicable and tender, to tense and contentious. If Smith deems a person incompetent, he then determines who will become their guardian for financial or personal matters. 

Some are elderly people with dementia. Others are referred from the Duke Trauma Center or the Department of Social Services. And some are people with autism who come once they reach adulthood, such as Makeai.

There’s a lot on the line: Who will be responsible for the ward’s property, their medical decisions, their finances?

‘Sword and shield’

Pochapsky turns to Makeai with a last note of encouragement before the proceedings. 

“We’re both Leos. You know what that means? That means we’re smart, we’re strong,” Pochapsky says. 

It’s not clear if she understands the reference to her astrological sign.

Smith walks into the room and sits behind his bench in front of an audience of only four.

“Today is the 31st. It’s Halloween!” he says, to diffuse any tension in the room.

In these cases, it’s up to an attorney, or guardian ad litem, to investigate whether someone is competent, who should become their guardian, and what that guardian’s responsibilities should be. Today, that’s Pochapsky. 

“You are her sword and shield,” Smith reminds Pochapsky.

For Pochapsky, that means he investigates potential guardians to make sure the court appoints one who will protect Makeai and won’t exploit their guardianship responsibilities. 

When the court declares someone incompetent, they lose civil rights and freedom. They may lose their privilege to drive, file a court case, or own a firearm. Pochapsky wants people like Makeai to retain as many rights as they can handle.

“Civil rights are something most people do not want to give up and shouldn’t have to unless it’s necessary. The objective is to make sure that the court orders whatever level of guardianship is necessary, but not any more,” he says after the hearing.

He also wants to make sure the guardianship responsibilities fall into the right hands. With Makeai, her mom was an easy answer. But sometimes it’s not as clear who should be the guardian — especially when it comes to finances. 

Family dynamics and exploitation

In some cases, Smith watches families argue over guardianship. 

“Quite often, there will be confusion as to who — siblings, children, whomever — should have control of the incompetenet ward’s finances,” Smith says. “Every possible permutation of family dynamics comes into play. Families are not as depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings — the stylized images of the peaceful, happy family.”

Pochapsky says the biggest fights often involve inheritance. 

And Smith says that sometimes the finances end up in the wrong hands. Although he can’t predict exploitation, he’s not surprised when it happens. 

“It’s the human condition. There are scoundrels out there.” 

If there isn’t a family member who could be a responsible guardian of the person’s finances, Smith can give the role to a public guardian, someone who is hired to manage the person’s financial affairs.

Emotional spectrum

Smith says the guardianship process has to be compassionate.

“Some people I know are sharp as tacks, and they’re almost 100. But for most of us, unfortunately, we begin to decline with time. It’s our duty as human beings to love the ones who have lived with us and are starting to suffer.” 

Likewise, the process protects people like Makeai who are on the autism spectrum.

Pochapsky says he strives to make sure the people he represents are comfortable. His role requires as much empathy as it does lawyering. 

“I’ve had a lot of cases that involve people on the autism spectrum. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like being inside their head when they’re sitting in that courtroom. Although it looks rather innocuous to us, it’s gotta be frightening to them,” he says. 

In the courtroom, after discussing the guardianship logistics, Smith looks over to Makeai. 

“All right Makeai, is it all right to have your mom be your guardian?” he says. 

She nods her head yes. 

In a chair to the right, Julia Respass slides off her glasses and wipes away tears. Makeai looks at her mother intently and walks over. Julia Respass leans down to tie her daughter’s shoe, and then they hug.