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Posts published by “Mia Meier”

Seeking safety, victims of domestic violence go to court. But it’s not that simple.

Two women come before a judge seeking domestic violence protection orders. In one case, a woman alleges that her abuser is trying to get possession of the house. In the other, a woman claims that her partner has physically harmed her.  The judge denies a domestic violence protection order to the first woman but grants one to the second. 

The first woman is killed by her abuser. The second woman’s allegations turn out to be false.  

“I think I used to keep those [two complaints] on my wall because I think that you have to remember your gut instinct isn’t always your right instinct,” says Durham County Judge Nancy Gordon, who heard the two cases at a judge’s training in North Carolina in 2007. 

Domestic violence protection orders, known as a DVPO or 50B order, per the legal statute that created them, are the court’s way of requiring perpetrators of domestic violence to stay away from victims or face arrest. But obtaining an order is fraught with complications. 

Judges, prone to their own biases, act fallible. Nervous complainants sometimes file and withdraw their request several times. Victims must advocate for themselves despite frequently lacking legal experience. 

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Durham County courts have seen an influx of domestic violence cases, judges and prosecutors say. Even before the pandemic, increasingly sophisticated and discreet tracking technology made it easier for abusers to stalk their victims.

In 2020 North Carolina saw 61 homicides by intimate partners and 45 so far in 2021, according to the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“They all keep you awake at night,” says Gordon, referring to protective order cases. A stylish white streak of hair frames the face of the judge, first elected to the bench in North Carolina in 2006.

“If something is alleged and you don’t give somebody an ex parte order” — a temporary protective measure — “you look in the — I look — in the newspapers.” 

‘A drastic remedy’

A DVPO results from a civil filing by the victim. At the first hearing, the judge decides whether the defendant has committed an act of domestic violence based on what the plaintiff brings to the judge. The judge may issue an ex parte order, valid until the next hearing.

“That’s a pretty drastic remedy, “ Gordon says. “You could be kicking somebody out of their house. Where are they going to go? It’s Covid, so you have to think about what it is you’re doing.”

The plight of victims is often dramatic. But the bureaucratic grind of court obscures that turmoil. 

In the breezy, dimly lit Courtroom 5A, otherwise known as Durham County’s domestic violence court, Judge Doretta Walker asks each plaintiff, “Is everything in your complaint true?” 

“He comes over to my house. I don’t want him to get close to my children because he is very aggressive,” responds one woman in a leopard-print cardigan and low-rise pink pants. 

The woman uses an interpreter. The two huddle shoulder to shoulder at the corner of the bench far across the courtroom from Walker. 

“Anything else?” the judge asks.

“He tries to come looking for me. I don’t want him to get close to me.”

Walker grants the woman an ex parte order. 

To qualify under Chapter 50B, plaintiffs must show that someone currently or previously in their household has threatened, harassed, or actually injured them or their child.

On another recent afternoon in Courtroom 5A, a young woman dressed casually in jeans stands straight as a board before Gordon. Her round belly pushes against her burgundy T-shirt; she has two children and another is on the way. 

She explains to Gordon that her former roommate’s behavior drove her to call the police four times. The two once lived together, but the woman wants the man gone permanently from her apartment.

Each time, she says, the police told her that she must evict him.. 

His name is not on the lease, so Gordon advises the woman to, “keep a copy of the lease in the apartment and on you.” 

Before deciding whether to approve an ex parte order, Gordon also inquires about who can get the children from school. The woman says she has already taken the man’s name off the pickup list at her kids’ Early Head Start program. 

Gordon grants the order. 

‘What good would this do…?’

After an ex parte hearing,  both plaintiff and defendant — the alleged abuser — are expected to show up in court again together, usually within 10 days.

During the second hearing,  the defendant makes clear whether they’ll consent to the order. If the defendant does not agree to the DVPO, the judge will hold a trial to decide whether to keep the order in place. 

In Durham County District Court, plaintiffs frequently fail to show up for this second hearing. Often judges then dismiss the case. 

Judge James Hill says he is sympathetic to the plight of domestic violence victims. In fact, it has afflicted at least one member of his family. That relative entered and withdrew “three or four orders,” Hill says, and then finally followed through. 

But he dismisses cases when victims do not show. One day recently in his courtroom after a day of cases, Hill sat in his chair and waved an imaginary piece of paper, representing a protective order.  What good would this do against someone with a weapon, he asked.  

“Until the victim decides they want to do something, there’s not a whole lot we can do,” said Hill, 71, a retired jurist who now fills in as a substitute judge throughout the state. 

Many victims agree.

Melanie, a Triangle resident, says that she has a protective order out against her abuser. Still, she had to move from two different shelters because he found her.  

Now she also has a 6-month-old son to protect. The 9th Street Journal is not fully identifying her for her safety. 

“So honestly, the order of protection isn’t really helpful,” Melanie wrote in a Facebook message. “They go to court [and] get right out, especially if they have money, power, and resources.”

There are other incentives for individuals to seek a protective order.  To get a divorce in North Carolina, for example, a couple must be separated for one year, and to be considered separated, they cannot live together. A DVPO can force a spouse out of the residence, Gordon says.

In other words, the courts can be a theater to work out personal relationships.

“Unlike 100 years ago, they don’t send you to the church to work it out. They send you to the courts,” says Gordon, a family law attorney for more than two decades before being elected to the Durham County District Court. 

Meanwhile, Melanie tries to get herself back on her feet. She has reached out to a local mutual aid group asking for financial support. She says she does not want to be a burden to the community. 

 “It’s hard starting over, especially with a baby,” Melanie says.

PHOTO ABOVE: Durham County Judge Nancy Gordon says protective order cases “all keep you awake at night.” Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Everything in there is serious.’

Judge Doretta Walker glared down at two women with matching magenta-streaked braids  who stood before her in Courtroom 4D – in the Durham County Courthouse.

One of the women, Sekia Pegram, had violated her probation and subsequently failed to appear in court. And Walker was not happy. 

 “You could go to jail for being late today,” said Walker, a District Court judge. “You’re in custody for 45 days.”

In Durham, judges are elected officials. While they are accountable to their constituents, in the day-to-day churn of the criminal legal system, Walker reigns over the courtroom. Her thick, melodic voice fills the space. She commands. She nudges. She scolds.

“I love helping people,” Walker said. “I love holding people accountable. I love making sure that they know that they need to do right.“

That morning, she wore her black robe, and her favorite matching black mask — the one imprinted with “Judge Walker” in bold white lettering.There are three Black female judges up here,” she said, “and a lot of people get us confused. So, I put my name.”

With a decade of experience on the bench, Walker sees cases from trespassing to theft on a daily basis. Felonies and other serious cases may pass through District Court up to Superior Court, but Walker understands the power she wields. 

“The consequences of a conviction, everything is serious,” she said, enunciating each syllable. “To me, everything in there is serious.”

In court, Walker defended the 45-day sentence she gave Pegram.

“She gets every single day that she gets. I was nice to her. I can’t be nice to people, and she spits in my face,” she told Pegram’s public defender, Abigail Holloway, who protested the ruling. 

The bailiff gently guided Pegram to a seat on the bench to the right of Walker and handcuffed her. She rested her cuffed hands in her lap atop acid wash jeans, and Pegram glowered as the loss of her freedom sank in. 

Judge Walker sets the pace of her courtroom.

“Do you have something for me to do?” she repeated throughout the rainy September morning.  “I know you have something for me to do now. At least this gives us something to do.”

Her eagerness sometimes edged into impatience.

“Were you just over there looking at a piece of paper?” Walker asked Assistant District Attorney Andrew House, annoyed that he had not presented her with a legal argument yet in Pegram’s hearing. 

Earlier that morning, one defendant apparently left before his case was addressed. Walker counted him as failing to appear when his case was called, although he was present earlier.  Her hands are tied if those on the docket are not in her courtroom. 

“Who are we going to deal with now?” she asked as she inclined her head to the three lean men who filed in during Pegram’s hearing. 

They sat in a row, cuffed hands in their laps. Two wore rust-colored uniforms, and the third wore a bright orange jumpsuit. The “jail line,” Judge Walker called them.  

“Come on, they’ll miss lunch,” Walker said, hurrying House, as he rifled through papers between cases. 

Next, a witness spoke in the case of Gary Burton, one of the men on the jail line. Burton faced one count of attempted larceny and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon. 

Walker asked the witness what he wanted to see from the court system.

“I’ll let this court do what it wants to,” he said sheepishly, wearing a graphic T-shirt tucked into blue jeans. 

“Speak loud,” the judge said. 

 Walker asked the stout middle-aged man what he meant.

“We’re all human,” he said. “We all make mistakes.”

He just wanted Burton to be held accountable. 

 “You are so nice,” Walker told him. “You are a wonderful person.” 

ABOVE:  District Court Judge Doretta Walker. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘I really want to burn this…building down’

On a sunny September morning, the picture window near Courtroom 4D is framed by blue sky. It’s around 9:10 a.m. in the Durham County Courthouse and about five people mill about the corridor. A defendant scrolls through his emails and mutters nervously, as bursts of R&B music echo from someone else’s cell phone. Lawyers scold their clients: “Don’t lie to me.”

By 10:30 a.m., the people in the hallway have had their cases heard. But Tyi’sean Matthews, now in the courtroom, still waits. 

Finally, he walks out. The slim 21-year-old in a blue-and-green plaid shirt and dark pants shouts to no one in particular, “I really want to burn this f—ing building down, and it’d be easy.”

Then he looks at the ground, shoulders hunched, eyes cast downward.

A wide-eyed bailiff swiftly emerges behind him. Positioned between the courtroom door and Matthews, the bailiff gently and repeatedly explains that his case will be heard when his public defender, Rebekka Olsen, finishes her business upstairs in Superior Court. 

Matthews’ nearly 90-minute wait pales in comparison to the year and half his case has been stalled in Durham’s legal system. The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the already-busy Durham County Courthouse, forcing those caught up in the system to put their lives on hold. The young man just wants to get home to his dogs. 

To an unconvinced Matthews, the bailiff further explains that the public defender will be coming any moment now.  Under the threat of being charged with failure to appear if he leaves, Matthews resigns to roaming down the hallway.

He holds his phone as he walks, looking into the screen. He shouts again, threatening to  “blow up downtown Durham.” 

Matthews returns to the courtroom, phone still in hand. He tells the person on the other end that he is “sitting here doing nothing.” A bailiff approaches, and he hangs up. Then District Court Judge Amanda Maris looks over the near-empty courtroom and asks about the matter involving “the gentleman in plaid.” 

Olsen walks in shortly after. Judge Maris greets them with “Good morning,” as Matthews stands, now silently composed. His head hangs so far forward that his short locks obscure his face.

In his initial outburst, Matthews, who faces charges for larceny of a firearm and breaking or entering a motor vehicle, claimed that he’d already made seven appearances related to the case. Judge Maris says it’s unclear why, but the court file shows his case has been postponed 10 times.

Later, in response to questions about Matthews’ case, Olsen does not say whether her client knew she would be delayed this morning.  In an email, she does stress that she has been to court with him twice — in late February and again today.

In the courtroom, Assistant District Attorney Andrew House says that his office has not assigned a prosecutor to Matthews’ case nor subpoenaed the relevant witness. Judge Maris describes the lack of progress in the case as “unacceptable.”

The prosecution and defense settle on a day to convene again. “It will be the last court date,” Judge Maris promises Matthews.

Her assurances bring him little comfort.

“I really don’t care,” Matthews says a few minutes later, outside the courthouse.  “They could have just thrown me in jail for 45 days….The judge couldn’t tell me sh– about nothing, and she’s supposed to be the top person in the building….I could just go disappear on you stupid motherf—ers, and y’all never see me again.” 

 Then he rides away on his skateboard.