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Posts published by “Lilly Clark”

Despite reform, unwritten rules run NC’s bail industry

In Vance County on a recent Tuesday, a bail bondsman faced off against the school board attorney: $15,000 was at stake.

Two eldery bailiffs manned the metal detector in the courthouse. Past a few squares of mousy carpet, a sign above two gray doors read “District Court #1.”

Bail is complicated. State laws, judges’ policies, District Attorneys’ office culture, and even the discretion of school boards influence the bail bonds industry and determine whether people can pay the price of their freedom. 

Despite a DA policy discouraging cash bail, the industry is very much alive in Durham and throughout the state. And dozens of people in that spacious courtroom were about to witness the complex system in action. 

Sekayi Brown, the bondsman, felt a little nervous. He sported a black polo shirt tucked into khakis, and his black mask was adorned with the NC Bail Agents Association (NCBAA) logo. Tattoos sprawled across the thick carob-colored biceps of this ex-Marine and former chef with a criminal justice degree. 

Brown drove the 45 minutes from his Durham office to ask the judge for his money back.

‘Too big of a risk’

In North Carolina, if someone misses court, a bondsman has five months to find them. If they don’t, they have to pay. But then they have another three years to recover the person and appeal to get their money back.

Laws like these shape bondsmen’s unwritten rules. For example, many bondsmen refuse to bail out immigrants out of fear that they could flee, Brown said, though that’s not his policy.

Brown said he’s often willing to take riskier bonds because he doubles as a bail enforcement agent, or bounty hunter. He has the tools and manpower to find people himself. 

But sometimes even recovering a person in the five-month window isn’t enough. If a person fails to appear twice, gets out on bond again, and misses court for any reason, the bondsman has no chance to get that money back. The person facing charges may be laid up in the hospital. It doesn’t matter. No exceptions. 

Brown used to write some of those bonds anyway. He usually doesn’t anymore. 

“That’s just too big of a risk for us to keep doing until they change that statute,” he said.

In his Durham office parking lot, black truck idling, one of Brown’s two cell phones rang with a case just like that.

“Brown Bail Bonding,” he answered. 

On the line was a woman who had missed court twice on misdemeanor charges for property damage: she said she broke a window in 2019. She had just learned about a warrant for her arrest and expected a $2,000 bond, though she hadn’t turned herself in yet. 

She works as a nurse and has kids. She has no time to sit in jail.

Brown told her he doesn’t usually write these anymore, but if she puts up $1,000 as collateral, which she’ll get back after the trial, plus the $300 nonrefundable fee, he’ll do it. If she misses court again, he’ll have the collateral to cover some of the loss. She agrees to his conditions.

After the call, Brown said he could tell that she’d talked to other bondsmen and heard one “no” after another. One more missed court date and the money’s lost for good, so they won’t do it.

“A lot of people are in jail for that reason,” Brown said. ”Right now, they have two [failures to appear] and no bondsman will get them out.” 

The debate over cash bail

Cash bail is an old system, one that burgeoned during the tough-on-crime era in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The NC Bail Agents Association formed in 1992 and has lobbied since then to reduce the risk of financial loss to bondsmen, motivating them to write more bonds.

Now the industry has power in the legislature, and community advocates want to see the end of bail. Groups like the NC Community Bail Fund of Durham, created in 2017, say the current money bail system criminalizes poverty. It forces people who can’t afford to post their own bail to pay a fee to a bondsman or plead guilty to go free quickly. The alternative — staying in jail, even for just a few days — could mean risking their jobs or custody of their children.

Without financial resources, people throughout North Carolina sit in jail for low level crimes, even though they’re not likely to flee or pose a danger to the community, experts say. That’s punishment for being poor, activists say, and they want the laws changed.

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry ran on a platform of decreasing cash bail, and her office has a policy that discourages it. Assistant District Attorney Daniel Spiegel said they try to detain dangerous individuals on high bond and release everyone else.

This would mean, in an ideal world, there would be no small bonds in Durham County. No one would worry about paying their way out of jail for breaking a window. But it isn’t that easy. 

“It’s just not something that the law allows right now — to just decide release or no release, without money involved,” said Sarah Willets, spokesperson for the DA’s office.

The second-chance guy

Brown had seen some of this. He had noticed some big bonds getting bigger and small bonds getting smaller, with more people released on a written promise to appear. But he still has plenty of business.

Asked about a situation like that of the woman who called Brown, Spiegel said cases like hers aren’t easy.

“Where someone has a relatively minor offense, maybe a misdemeanor, and continually misses court, that can be very difficult,” he said.

Durham judges also have a bail policy that contradicts the DA’s. Theirs includes a bail schedule that recommends a dollar range by type of charge, something Deberry’s office hopes to leave behind.

Surprisingly, Brown doesn’t insist on bond’s necessity.

“Do I think that if you get arrested, you should have a bond? I don’t think you need to have a bond every time,” he said. “In my heart, I believe that most people will go to court. If given the option, they’ll go to court without having a secured bond.”

He’s also the second chance guy. With beliefs about innocence shaped by an internship fingerprinting sex offenders in California, to him, every charge is just an allegation until it’s tried. 

“I’m trusting that you’re gonna go to court. Right?” he said. “That’s really all I care about.”

A strict interpretation

Erwin Santo, the Vance County no-show, wasn’t easy to find after he missed court in May. Though Santo faced DWI charges in Vance, Durham was home. That’s why Brown got involved.

Back in the courtroom, Brown told the judge that he apprehended Santo twice. Once, he caught him at a nightclub but let him go because his ID claimed he was someone else. That was two days before the five-month deadline. 

Brown clasped his hands on the podium as he faced the judge. He had paid the court $15,000 and kept looking for Santo. He said he found him again 36 days later and took him to jail. 

Surrendered bail money goes to fund county schools, so the white lawyer with a swoop of gray hair, glasses and an orange tie, Jerry Stainback, stood near the judge to represent the school board.

Stainback asked the judge for a “strict interpretation” of the five-month statute.

“Motion denied,” said Judge Amanda Stevenson, glancing up. It all took less than two minutes. 

Shocked, Brown retreated back over the mousy carpet, past the bailiffs and metal detector. 

“She’s just like, no expression, just denied. Like, what?” he said outside in the car. “It just kind of left a bad taste in my mouth.”

Brown made $1,500 minus fees off this bond initially, but it’s a net loss. An “expensive lesson,” he said. In Durham County, he’d have gotten the money back without appearing before a judge — that’s the school board lawyer’s practice here.

Brown later said he plans to appeal the decision.

While small bonds are still around, the rules that discourage bondsmen from posting bail for certain people remain convoluted and widely unknown. Whether it’s two failures to appear  or the mercy of a school board lawyer, these rules determine who can use the industry to go free. Freedom paid for is freedom nonetheless.

“I may just say we’re not gonna write Vance County anymore. Because that was a big hit,” Brown said. “That was the biggest bond I ever paid in 16 years.”


Reflections: Does courts coverage do more harm than good?

It’s the fourth week of school and I’m crying in my editor’s well-lit office. 

It’s nothing serious — I cry frustratingly easily, often about things that I’m mildly stressed about or invested in.  It’s involuntary and annoying. 

I’m crying in my editor’s office, across his honey-colored desk, because I want to leave the names out of my story, and he wants to leave them in.

I wrote the story about something I watched happen in traffic court, a moment of simultaneous justice and mercy in a place where seemingly mundane rules can transform people’s lives.

The judge sentenced a 30-year-old man to 10 days in jail for driving while impaired with a revoked license, despite his attorney’s plea that he’d been coping with the aftermath of his mother’s unexpected death. While security personnel sorted the man’s belongings and took him to jail, a college student read an essay about traffic school to the court. The judge dismissed the 19-year-old’s speeding and marijuana charges and sent him back into freedom with a “Good luck to you, sir.”

Stephen Buckley, my editor, gave me this working definition of journalism in a moment of crisis the week before: true stories for the public good. I scrawled it on an empty page in my notebook three pages before the traffic court scene went down.

If it were up to me, despite the 11 hours I spent in court this week, I’d have written nothing at all, I tell Buckley. I don’t think this story does much for the public good. I ask him if we can leave the piece unpublished or take the names out, and he says that’s not up to us to decide. Everything that happened in that courtroom is already public information. 

This point I still disagree with. Just because information is public doesn’t mean it’s ethical to amplify. I believe that in general, it might be a good thing that you have to visit the courthouse or pay a website to find a person’s dismissed charges. 

However, Buckley gently explains other important ways my thinking is wrong. I’m paraphrasing my impressions here because I didn’t take notes or record.

This is why you have to try to talk to people and not be a chicken, he says. (He doesn’t say the chicken part.) They might be completely game to talk to you for an article and you’re missing out on an important perspective — theirs. 

Also, you’re assuming readers will think the worst of the people in your story, he says. Have a little more faith in them. You actually paint this teenager in a good light. People won’t judge him just because the police charged him.

But because I’m guilty of skimming news articles and missing humanizing details, I’m skeptical of the reader.

It’s an easier and more straightforward process to clear your name in the courts than in the newsroom, at least in Durham. I think this might be because what the court sees as punishment, journalists see as information. Also, when you’re writing an article due at 11:59 p.m., it can be hard to imagine what it’ll be like for someone to have that story still tied to their name on Google in 30 years. 

Some newspapers deny unpublishing requests on principle, and some use nebulous criteria. Some will add an addendum about dropped charges but not alter an article’s original text. Editors often decide on a case-by-case basis.

In North Carolina’s courts, you fill out a form and pay $175 to clear your record of prior charges and convictions. There are how-to websites. You can get free legal assistance. The DA’s office itself has petitioned the court to do this for juveniles prosecuted as adults. 

Not everyone is eligible, but the 2020 Second Chance Act allows people a new legal start. They can erase from their record non-violent misdemeanors, dismissed or not guilty charges, and certain juvenile convictions.

“In a lower level case, having your arrest and your mugshot easily called up on Google anytime someone searches your name for the rest of your life might actually be a stiffer consequence than the crime itself,” said Sarah Willets, spokesperson for Durham’s District Attorney’s office. “That could follow you for far longer than any sentence that the law would allow.”

I went to Willets looking for expertise on the collateral damage of courthouse coverage because she’s had a foot in both journalism and prosecution. She worked as a crime reporter for years and now she manages communications in an office where prosecutors typically can’t comment to journalists.

Willets thinks the press play a vital role in the courts. But, she said, they could play that role more ethically.

“Are you going to follow through when you report on an arrest or a pending case? Are you going to follow through and say what the outcome was?” she said. “And if not, if it’s not worth following that case to the end, is there really a public interest in covering it?”

Consider whether you’re writing for the public good or just because a story’s kind of interesting, and someone might want to read about it, Willets said. I believe my story fell into the second category, even though I was hoping to write something of the first.

Willets told me she fought with her editors too. She wrote about a reentry program and one man’s experience leaving prison for her last story at Indy Week. She wanted to leave the man’s crime out, her editor wanted to leave it in. 

The city — Durham — had decided he should move on, she said. “And who are we to stand in the way of that?”

Her editor countered: that’s a big thing to conceal from readers. The editor won — the man’s conviction sits in the fifth paragraph of the published story online.

I left Buckley’s office thinking he too had won, that we would publish the story, and with names. But to spare me the stress, and because the primary goal of this class is to learn, not just to publish, he told me later that we wouldn’t.

Before I keep complaining about being a “student journalist” who doesn’t seem to want to publish any journalism, I’ll flash us back to last fall. I was among a crowd of protestors in head-to-toe black that set off fireworks outside Durham County jail. 

Earlier in their march they’d chanted, “News is cops, news is cops,” and blocked TV cameras with umbrellas. I’d chanted along the rest of the night, but in those moments I hesitated, not sure what to say.

I was in a news writing class at the time and thought I wanted to become an audio journalist.

Four days later I was back in journalism class and still thinking about it. If news is cops, should I be writing news? Can journalism avoid this?

A friend who was there that night graciously gave me some of their time on the phone. They told me a local TV station had posted mugshots of their friends arrested for protesting earlier that summer. Then those friends got doxxed, which means readers found and published their private information online, a particularly vicious revenge tactic. The news cost them.

My traffic court article was a different situation entirely. Buckley told me so while I objected, and he was right. But I do think about how what my peers and I write can reinforce the judgments of a broken criminal legal system.

How do we balance readers’ trust with future costs to our sources, costs exacerbated by internet longevity? Is every omission an effort to conceal? How do we minimize harm while maximizing the public good?

Willets gave me a few recommendations. In essence, she said, look for consent and context. Talk to the parties involved — especially victims — and make them understand how this story could follow them, she said. Situate the criminal case within the social issues forcing people to come to court, like lack of mental health care or community investment. Study the research around crime. Stick around and follow through.

This advice is hard to follow on deadline. Court cases can take forever: even the simple ones may drag on for months or years. 

Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi spent a year reporting Serial season 3, the podcast that inspired the creation of the 9th Street Journal’s courthouse reporting project. Each vignette they present from the Cleveland courthouse consists of months of interviews. Our vignettes, or “Courthouse Moments,” pan out over one week.

Maybe that’s where I land: I’m unwilling to do quick journalism, even if that means I won’t be employable in this field. Maybe one day newspapers will make different decisions about whether their quick news should last forever in its original form; maybe we’ll make unpublishing guidelines more transparent to the people we report on. 

I don’t think I’ve come to any solid answers. I have a feeling I’ll squirm closer to a conclusion in the coming years, talking through these conflicts with editors (and unfortunately probably after shedding a few more tears).

Photo Above: Lilly Clark, by Josie Vonk — The 9th Street Journal

A Courthouse Moment: ‘It’s exhausting.’

Michael Ray Johnson, 34, has been waiting in jail for more than 200 days. Three years have passed since he broke into a woman’s home and assaulted her and her daughter, the mother of his son.

In this bond hearing on a recent Tuesday, Johnson sits in an airy Durham County courtroom, wearing long cream-colored sleeves beneath his orange uniform. He has almond-colored skin and cropped hair. He stares coolly ahead and sits mostly motionless and silent.  

Small groups of courthouse staff watch and whisper to each other, but the benches for people who aren’t paid to be here—defendants or victims or family—are mostly empty. 

After three years of delays, Crystal Smith, the mother of Johnson’s young son, doesn’t show up in court. And Lisa Fowler, the boy’s grandmother, who was once adamant about pursuing charges, isn’t there either. She is tired of waiting.

Fowler  “just says she doesn’t care what happens. It’s exhausting,” Assistant District Attorney Brooks Stone tells Judge Michael O’Foghludha. “She feels like her input is irrelevant, and it’s taking so long. This happened back in 2018.”

Since then, much has changed in Durham’s courthouse. Durham elected a new district attorney. A slew of prosecutors left; new ones picked up the stacks of files they left behind. The delays of a pandemic and busy DA’s office now keep worn-out victims and defendants alike in greater limbo than before.

According to the state, Johnson broke into Fowler’s home in June 2018. He entered through a window and tussled with Fowler and with Smith. He then ran outside, beat on Fowler’s Toyota Solara with a baseball bat, and then drove off. 

Fowler, her daughter and then-three-year-old grandson followed him outside. As Johnson drove off, neighbors heard gunshots. Police think Johnson was firing at Fowler, her daughter and grandchild. 

Smith dialed 911 that night. Now that she’s not interested in pressing charges, that call stands as her only testimony. 

The absence of Smith and Fowler could spell the end of Johnson’s case. Prosecutors don’t represent victims, but they do rely on them to testify. Domestic violence victims, in particular, are often uncooperative, Stone says. Johnson appeared in court on assault charges against Smith before, in 2017 and 2018, but the DA dismissed those charges because she didn’t show. 

Johnson’s files were swapped twice between DA’s. They first reassigned his case in September 2019, after six months without any hearings. His case was delayed again when the pandemic forced the courthouse to close for months. Finally, after 10 months without an appearance, Stone picked up his cases in July 2020, and Johnson got a new court date.

“His matters kind of got lost in the system,” Idrissa Smith, Johnson’s public defender, tells O’Foghludha. The lawyer gestures with his left hand and rests his right hand on Johnson’s shoulder. 

While Johnson’s case was postponed, he was free. But shortly after his case returned to the calendar, he missed a court date, and the police issued a warrant for his arrest. They picked Johnson up in February for illegal possession of drugs and jailed him for his failure to appear in court. He has remained in jail since.

The DA’s office postponed Johnson’s last three District Court dates for the drug charges without Johnson in the room, Idrissa Smith says. Durham prosecutors started automatically postponing cases to keep courtrooms uncrowded and prevent the spread of COVID-19. But they’re not supposed to do this to defendants in jail, Johnson’s attorney says. 

“At this point, keeping him in custody when you don’t really have witnesses is pre-trial punishment,” Idrissa Smith tells the court.

Because of the delays, the defense attorney hasn’t looked at the state’s evidence against Johnson in the drug case. 

 “I, as his defense attorney, have no clue what’s going on,” Idrissa Smith says, his voice echoing  through the room. He asks the judge to release Johnson and put him on house arrest, but the judge denies the motion. 

The state keeps Johnson in jail for another two weeks until Oct. 5, when he agrees to a plea deal. He will get credit for his time in jail and serve 15 to 27 months total for eight felonies. The waiting — for everyone — is over.