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Posts published by “Milla Surjadi”

Prosecutor spotlights victims’ needs — in and out of court

Three years ago, Josh Sotomayor offered to mop the floors of the District Attorney’s office. 

He had entered law school four years earlier with hopes of being a defense attorney. He graduated and realized he could better transform the criminal justice system from within. 

Shortly after Sotomayor’s graduation, Durham D.A. Satana Deberry assumed office and ushered in her platform of reform. Half her office turned over, positions opened up, and Sotomayor applied. 

“I’ll mop the floor,” he recalls telling Michelle Cofield, deputy chief of staff, during his interview. “Just hire me.” 

In June 2019, Sotomayor was sworn in as a Durham Assistant District Attorney. 

Under Deberry’s leadership, Sotomayor, who handles domestic violence cases with the special victims team, is now part of the change he wanted to see in law school. But rethinking how to prosecute crime also means rethinking traditional approaches to caring for victims, inside and outside of the courtroom. 

“If someone feels heard, and feels actually heard instead of just lip service, it really goes a lot further than you would expect,” said Sotomayor, 30, who grew up in Charlotte. “They just want to feel that the [DA’s] response is tailored to what their needs are.” 

* * *

On a Wednesday afternoon in November between court sessions, a legal assistant knocks on the door of Sotomayor’s office. 

Sotomayor, the least experienced felony prosecutor in the D.A’s office, calls her in. The prosecutor sits behind his uncluttered desk in a white button-down shirt and a red, white, and blue striped tie. His dark hair is short, not quite a buzzcut, and he has a mustache, which sometimes looks out of place in contrast with his youth. 

A red Solo cup, a pink water bottle, and an empty Red Bull can all stand in front of him. A card on his desk reads, “Bless this mess.” 

Her voice hints at panic as she hands him a Post-It and asks if he’s familiar with a victim. Sotomayor repeats the name and his eyebrows furrow. In early September, the victim’s boyfriend had broken down her door and strangled her. 

The legal assistant frantically explains that the victim just called the front desk. The victim spoke so fast that the legal assistant didn’t catch the defendant’s name. 

“She said that he’s outside [her house],” the legal assistant says, out of breath. “We told her to hang up and call 911.” 

Sotomayor turns to his computer, furiously typing into a database in search of the case and the defendant’s name. His urgency is justified: women who have been strangled by an intimate partner are 750% more likely to be killed by the same person with a gun. Sotomayor’s controlled demeanor doesn’t break. 

Sotomayor calls up a corporal at the Durham Police Department’s Special Victims Unit and tells him what happened. 

“Can I send you the information and someone gets sent out over there?” he asks. He hangs up and says nonchalantly to the room, “Okay.” 

“Good to go?” the legal assistant asks. He nods and she exhales. The whole interaction is over in seven minutes. 

A large part of Sotomayor’s job is exchanging information and updates on “ongoing series of events that need attention” with groups like the Durham Police Department, Legal Aid, the Family Justice Center and the Durham Crisis Response Center. He not only builds cases; he also makes sure the victim is safe and supported. 

“Not every prosecutor is going to be available to you all the time,” said Jeff Whitson, a legal advocate for the Durham Crisis Response Center, who helps victims navigate the legal system. 

But Sotomayor makes himself available. Some days, the phone calls start before he even gets to the office at 8 a.m. and continue through the night. 

“The amount of information that is being generated is oftentimes a lot faster than anyone can keep up with,” he said. 

* * *

Sotomayor is, inadvertently, drawn to messes. He can’t explain it, except that he enjoys untangling intricacies and complex situations until justice finds its way out. Stalking and domestic violence cases are almost always messy. 

A stalker might use a number of different methods on multiple instances over time. Sotomayor connects each instance to form one larger case, increasing efficiency for the court system and reducing stress for the victim.  

An assistant district attorney’s interest and skill in finding the connections in these cases is rare, according to SVU team lead ADA Kendra Montgomery-Blinn. 

“We’ve started to consider [Sotomayor] a specialist,” Montgomery-Blinn wrote in an email. “Law enforcement seeks him out in advance to consult during their investigations.” 

Victims of domestic violence often hesitate to speak to the DA’s office, show up to court, or pursue a case. On average, victims of domestic violence will leave and return to an abusive relationship seven times before they make the decision to go for good. 

“We let people know that just because you’re not moving forward this time, we’re not going to judge you if you come back to us,” Sotomayor said. “The end goal is that when there is a problem and you are on that seventh time, you can trust us with what’s going on.” 

To build that trust requires effort. It means listening to victims’ traumatic experiences and connecting them with victim services. For those who want to pursue charges, Sotomayor guides them through a legal system that is not designed for victims. For those who don’t want to move forward, building trust means accepting that choice, even if, to him, it doesn’t seem like a safe move. 

“Sometimes it seems like a fool’s errand,” Sotomayor said. But other times, the patience and relationship-building pay off. 

In March 2021, a woman was adamant about not proceeding with a domestic violence case against her husband. She and Sotomayor talked for two hours before court one day, but she wouldn’t budge.

“I don’t get frustrated at this job often, but it would’ve been easier to talk to a wall about it. She wasn’t hearing it, which is fine, because I’m not telling people how to react,” he said. “But it was concerning.”

In the end, the case was dismissed at the victim’s wish. 

Several months ago, Sotomayor picked up a phone call and found her on the other end. She was calling to tell him that he was right. Her husband stopped abusing her for a month after the dismissal. Then he returned to his old ways. 

Now, with the help of the Family Justice Center and Legal Aid, she is filing for divorce and custody of their children. 

Whitson said victims whom Sotomayor worked with described him as very approachable. He pointed out that Sotomayor is always mindful of the kind of justice a victim seeks, including classes, conviction, plea or jail time for the defendant. 

“He actually listened to what they had to say,” Whitson said. “And for the most part, respected their wishes. I can’t remember a time when he completely went against a client’s wishes.” 

* * *

As Sotomayor describes getting lost in the D.A.’s office on his first day, his phone rings. It’s the corporal with an update. Durham police have arrived at the apartment complex of the woman who called earlier. 

“[The defendant’s] sister lives across the hallway,” he says after hanging up. He raises his eyebrows and pauses dramatically. “Allegedly.” 

Sotomayor finds out that there is an existing no-contact order against the defendant by the victim, but the victim’s apartment complex’s address isn’t listed on the order. It’s unclear, then, if the defendant is violating the order by visiting his sister.

* * *

When Sotomayor started at the DA’s office, he feared that he wouldn’t be able to hack it — the domestic violence caseload, the secondary trauma. 

“You’re dealing with someone’s worst day. Something tremendous has happened and tremendous in the worst possible sense,” he said. “How is that going to go?” 

But on a wall in his office, under a triptych of Washington Crossing the Delaware that he bought on Amazon, hangs a plaque — his Victim Services Award for Distinguished Prosecutor, which he received in April 2021 from the U.S. Attorney’s offices for the Eastern, Middle, and Western districts of North Carolina and the state’s Victims Services Interagency Council. Those who nominated him, according to a press release, noted his “victim-centered approach” and “genuine concern for the victim’s safety” in a domestic violence case. 

“These kinds of cases are emotionally wearing,” Montgomery-Blinn wrote. “But they are also the cases where a dedicated prosecutor, like Josh, can have the biggest impact.” 

Sotomayor no longer has the same concerns. Asked if the demands of the role can lead to burnout, his answer was simple. If you really care about the work — the cases and the people — you can do this job for a long time. 

PHOTO ABOVE: Durham prosecutor Josh Sotomayor received a Victim Services Award for Distinguished Prosecutor in 2021.

Reflections: Can reporting spotlight truth — and honor humanity?

I’ve been thinking about what journalists promise readers and our sources. We promise them the truth. We promise accuracy, honesty, credibility. We promise that they can trust the words we write. 

But these promises mean nothing if the stories we tell aren’t told with care, if we forget that journalism is, at its core, an inquiry into what it means to be human. 

I’ve been thinking about what it means to honor that humanity. 

* * * 

On my first visit to the Durham County Courthouse, I’m so worried about being turned away at the doors, as some of my classmates have. When I finally sit down in domestic violence court, it dawns on me that I didn’t consider what to look for once I got in. 

I tell myself I’m just here to observe, that I’ll find a story next time. I watch the session unfold, listen for words I recognize, and feel the same way I do at sports events — the most basic rules apparent, but the technicalities, procedure, and players unfamiliar. I always end up watching the fans for most of the game anyway.  

At roll call, an assistant district attorney mentions that a defendant is being brought in from custody. I’m surprised by the prospect of seeing something I’ve only read about in the news. I wonder if this man and his case are a story worth telling. 

I don’t have to wait long. Halfway through the docket, a bailiff leads a man in a Durham County Jail jumpsuit to a seat at the front of the courtroom. I later learn his name is Juan Gomez. He’s 32 years old. And he’s looking for a plea deal after assaulting a woman. 

But his case isn’t what I find most interesting. His case isn’t really what I end up writing about. 

Minutes before Gomez’s case is called, two older women quietly slide into the bench next to me. The younger of the two fumbles with her phone to silence it, then asks me to help. These women are nervous — the older woman wrings her hands and the other picks rhythmically at a scab. I follow their gaze and I realize why. 

They look at Gomez with sad eyes and sigh deeply. They watch a loved one sit just out of reach, his fate out of their control, and I feel my chest tighten. These are the scenes in the courtroom that I rarely read about.  

His victim, it turns out, is also in court. And suddenly, the two women are sharing a knowing glance with each other when they hear the ADA say her name, craning their necks to find her in the benches. 

There’s palpable tension all around the courtroom and no one’s saying a word to each other. I scribble down every sigh and every glance and make mental notes of how the air in the room feels so that I can relive it later when I write. It is startling to see the effects of a crime ripple in front of you.  

This is the story I end up telling. 

I realize, later, that this silent conversation won’t be recorded in the court transcript. In Gomez’s case file, there will be no document that describes how these two women held their breath when the judge accepted the plea. There will be no mention of the two women at all. 

* * *

There’s a line I once read from a T.S. Eliot poem that goes, “At the still point of the turning world.” This is how that courtroom felt in those fifteen minutes, how it’s preserved in my mind. A still point. 

But the world keeps turning — the cases that come to court play out beyond the courtroom and the stories journalists tell continue off the page. It is easy to forget this. 

After the judge hands down her ruling, the defense attorney whisks the two women from the courtroom. I never found out how they knew Gomez. For days after, I kicked myself for this, for being too scared to approach them, too terrified that my questions would translate into violations of their privacy.   

But even if I’d found out, I don’t think the story would have changed much. 

What this piece illuminated for me is that what happens in the courtroom, and thus, the pieces journalists write, don’t just implicate the names listed on the case file — the defendant and victim. Those two women could have been his mother and grandmother, his siblings, his friends — it was the fact that they could have been so many people impacted by this case and my reporting that struck me. 

Rarely do we talk about this effect, the sadder echo of both victims’ and defendants’ loved ones, disassembled and undone by the justice system. But before that day, I also hadn’t given much thought to how it played out in journalism. 

The legal system does not always promise compassion. In journalism, the truth does not always promise humanity. 

But maybe I can promise it in my reporting, when I remember that the people who grant me their stories are trusting me with not only the present, but the future — that of their own, their loved ones, and the people they have yet to meet but one day might. 

This doesn’t mean sacrificing truth for compassion, but rather recognizing that sometimes the truth is far larger and more complex than we initially understand it to be. I am still trying to reconcile the necessity of telling a story and the impossibility of knowing it in all its totality. 

And maybe I can promise humanity in the stories I choose to tell — stories that unfold when no one else is watching, when journalism becomes a testament to the still points in a world that never stops turning. 

Editor’s note: Reflections is a feature that encourages student journalists to explore how they have learned and grown from the stories they have written for The 9th Street Journal. It is funded by a grant from The Purpose Project.

PHOTO ABOVE: Milla Surjadi

As cases soar, emergency judges keep courts moving

Judge Nancy Gordon emerges from a concealed door behind the bench into Courtroom 5A. No one notices her, except for the bailiff, who stands and commands, “All rise!” 

“This honorable court for the County of Durham is now open and sitting,” the bailiff says on this morning in early October. “The Honorable Judge Nancy Gordon presiding.” 

During the bailiff’s cry, Gordon, 67, walks the few feet to the judge’s chair. She wears thin-frame glasses, and her short brown hair, with a faint white streak, is tied back. Her black robe engulfs her. 

She takes a laptop out from under her arm and places it on the desk. Lingering for a moment, she stands with a hand on the chair. The pause lasts just long enough that when the courtroom sits down after the cry, she does too. That way, they all sit in unison.  

It’s a familiar ritual, one Gordon first took part in for decades as a family law attorney, then practiced as a Durham District Court judge. As a jurist, she has never known if she’s supposed to sit or stand during the cry. That’s still the case now that she’s an emergency judge. 

When sitting judges are unavailable, emergency judges step in to keep the court system — and its ever-growing caseload — moving. Unlike sitting judges, however, they aren’t voted onto the bench by constituents in partisan elections. Most lost their bids for re-election, like Gordon in 2014, or chose not to run for another term. 

On the bench, emergency judges hold the same judicial power they did as elected officials. But there’s no longer the subtle pressure of re-election, or the hovering spectre of a constituency. There’s only the expectation to administer justice fairly and objectively. Before each court session, the bailiff’s cry reminds Gordon of this responsibility.

“Really what [the bailiff’s cry] is about is the institution, not the person,” Gordon said. “You’re representing one of the branches of government, and that’s a whole lot bigger than you.” 

‘I don’t own the court system the way I used to’

When Gordon lost re-election’, she spent 90 days away from the bench — the minimum time before she could apply to be an emergency judge. 

Once an emergency judge is placed on an active list, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and the chief justice of the state supreme court can assign them to hold court for several reasons, including if a judge goes on medical leave, if a case overload occurs due to a vacancy, or if a judge recuses themselves. 

Emergency judges’ schedules are unpredictable. They may serve in any county in the state, unlike sitting District Court judges. Gordon has spent a single day in some courtrooms; in other courthouses, weeks. 

Gordon was assigned to oversee domestic violence cases in Durham for a week in October. Since August, she has filled in for former District Court Judge Brian Wilks after his promotion to Superior Court.

On Oct. 13, Gordon is sharp and quick. One attorney requests that today be her client’s last appearance for a two-month long case. Without looking up, Gordon cuts her off and snaps, “I’m not marking it last.” They schedule another appearance.

Gordon runs through the afternoon’s 37 cases with remarkable speed. 

Once, she raises her voice at a witness who filed a complaint against the mother of his son. 

“Do you know where your eight-year-old goes to school? Do you have custody papers?” Gordon chides. “If you really want your son to live with you, you should know how he’s doing in school.” 

He tells Gordon that his son is playing the guitar at an upcoming talent show, and her tone softens. She asks if he and the mother can stay 500 feet apart at the event. 

Gordon commands the courtroom, in part because of her familiarity with Durham. But over the last seven years, the state has changed — and so has her work. 

She doesn’t know the younger lawyers, and they don’t know her. When she gets assigned to other counties, they don’t know what to expect from her. Smaller counties welcome visiting judges, but “in a sort of sucking up way that makes me a little uncomfortable.” 

“I don’t own the court system the way I used to,” Gordon said. 

By this she means she isn’t overseeing cases as often as she did as a District Court judge. But if owning the system also means making judicial decisions without the stress of re-election, Gordon might own the system more now than she ever did. 

‘It was like watching heads explode’

In North Carolina, defendants who participate in the state’s community service program must pay a $250 fee. But many can’t come up with the funds, Gordon said. Instead in Durham, judges order community service at a non-profit.

So that’s what Gordon ordered when she went to oversee criminal court in Alamance County, a region in north-central North Carolina that leans Republican. 

“It was like watching heads explode,” Gordon said, laughing. “They’d never seen this before. And I’m sure they were thinking, ‘Who is this progressive judge coming from Durham, that little blue hole?’” 

She could do that because she doesn’t plan to run for office again. As an emergency judge, Gordon doesn’t wonder if the lawyers like her judicial philosophy and will vote for her re-election, she said. She doesn’t worry about how she’ll raise campaign funds. And she doesn’t have to fret about whether someone will challenge her in the next election. 

“I just need to be on the right side of judicial standards, which makes me feel a little more independent about some of the things I can do and not do,” she said. “I just have to do the job that I think is a good job.” 

Re-election is an unspoken concern among sitting judges. Another emergency judge, Lunsford Long, noted that sometimes, sitting judges recuse themselves from a “hot-button type of case that’s going to have political ramifications.” 

“So [the AOC] calls in an emergency judge and says, ‘Look, you’re not an elected judge. You’re not from here. Why don’t you come down here and resolve this mess,’” said Long, who served as an elected judge from Orange County from 2009-2016. “[Judges] wouldn’t say that they’re [concerned about re-election], but that’s obviously what’s going on when they want to duck the case.” 

Attorneys who work in the same courtroom daily also grow familiar with their judges. Sometimes they become too familiar, which makes arguing cases in front of an emergency judge difficult, said Christy Malott, a senior staff attorney at JusticeMatters, an advocacy non-profit. 

If Malott knew who the emergency judge was ahead of time, she altered her presentation: the aspects she focused on, the way she presented evidence. She called attorneys in other counties and asked, “Who knows this judge? What do I need to know in order to do a good job?” 

“Bringing in a new judge can make it a little bit harder, but the alternative is that all those cases don’t get heard,” Malott said. “The calendar gets more and more backed up.”

‘Court should still be able to work’

In 2017, the number of emergency judges was hacked by two-thirds in a General Assembly budget cut. 

The AOC did not respond to requests for comment and recent data on the number of emergency judges in time for publication. 

Gordon, who views her role as an “experienced, knowledgeable backup,” believes the state should make more emergency judges available. Sitting judges bear caseloads that are too large and practice too little self-care, she said. 

“Judges should be able to take a vacation and their court should still be able to work,” she said. 

In the middle of Gordon’s October session, a defendant doesn’t know the name of his public defender. She tells him that it’s Barbara Lagemann and recommends that he meet her before his next court date, which Gordon schedules for Nov. 30. 

As he turns and begins to walk out of the courtroom, Gordon yells, “When’s your next court date, sir?” 

He’s startled. Over his shoulder, he mumbles, “November 30th.” 

Grinning, Gordon throws up her arm and gives a thumbs up: “You’re free to go.” 

Being a judge is solitary work. If you do it right, Gordon said, the job is also exhausting. Yet none of that deters her.

“Retirement’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” she said. “I like keeping my head active. I like being a judge.” 

PHOTO ABOVE: Judge Nancy Gordon has been an emergency judge since losing a re-election bid in 2014.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Barbara Lagemann’s last name.

Justice is blind. But what you wear to court matters.

At the Durham County Courthouse, judgments begin before a case is even heard. 

The first judgment happens at the doors of the courthouse, where deputies decide who enters. They scan dockets for defendants’ names, wave lawyers through, and direct victims and witnesses to courtrooms. As they do so, they glance at what each person wears, determining whether an outfit is presentable for court. 

The second round of judgments occurs at the doors of the courtroom. On a recent Wednesday outside of Courtroom 5A, a bailiff checks names again. This time, though, she looks closer at clothing. 

She mistakes a defendant wearing a crisp navy blue suit and glossy brown loafers for an attorney. She instructs defendants whose boxers peek through sweatpants and jeans to pull their pants up. Tuck t-shirts in. Take snapback hats off. If they don’t, she warns, the judge may not hear their case. 

There is no dress code in the Durham courthouse. Justice, after all, is supposed to be blind. But courtrooms are stages for human drama, where dress and decorum matter and their impact on one’s image is impossible to ignore. In other words, perception can shape justice.

“There’s a general formality in court that can be intimidating,” said Sarah Willets, spokesperson for Durham’s District Attorney’s office. “Even if no one has said to you explicitly, ‘You can’t wear this,’ you still get the sense when you walk in court that there’s a certain way things are usually done.”

In the courtroom itself, some outfits are expected. There are attorneys in suits and ties, blazers and pencil skirts. Bailiffs stand guard in beige uniforms, and the judge dons a traditional black robe. 

The clothes in the gallery, however, tell a story of defendants, victims, witnesses, and relatives who put their daily routines on pause to watch judges decide fates. 

                                                                           * * *

When a defendant is called up, judges take their attire into account. Some judges who don’t approve of an outfit won’t hear a defendant’s case until they change, said Durham’s Chief Public Defender Dawn Baxton. 

For some defendants then, an outfit can reflect the significance of the moment and indicate to the judge their regard for the legal process. On that Wednesday in Courtroom 5A — domestic violence court — the man in the crisp navy suit, Benjamin Wendt, slides a briefcase under the bench before fixing his tie. The court finds out he is representing himself. 

Wendt sits next to Ananias Surratt, a young man whose clothes suggest that his court appearance coincided with his plans to go for a run. Surratt wears navy athletic shorts and a black hoodie, along with a pair of red, white, and blue New Balance sneakers.

Both men are in court for the same charge — assault on a female. 

Baxton thinks judges regard inappropriate attire as disrespectful to the judicial process. 

“Judges might have, in their mind, a standard,” Baxton said. They consider tank tops and shorts to be inappropriate. They take offense at some writings on t-shirts. 

But for many defendants, the clothes they wear to court are the best they have. In fact, to address this issue, staff at the Public Defender’s Office have collected a closet of donated professional clothes. 

“I think judges don’t take into consideration the circumstances that people are coming to court in,” Baxton said. “Some leave work and come straight to court. Others don’t own business attire. These are things that I don’t feel should be distracting a case from getting heard.” 

                                                                         * * *

Later that day in Courtroom 5A, a victim takes the stand. She wears a burgundy striped button-down shirt and black skinny jeans. Her large black handbag sits on the table. 

Between shallow breaths, she recalls the night of July 9, one of many when the father of her children came home high and assaulted her. She fell and hit her head. 

“That’s what you deserve,” she recalls him saying. Her voice cracks. She begins to cry.  

Most victims and witnesses have never been to a courthouse before. In their first visit to a building consumed by decorum, they relive trauma — a judge interrogates their story, a jury questions their credibility. What they wear can affect both how they present themselves and how the judge perceives them. 

“[Clothing] matters in terms of feeling comfortable and feeling like you belong there,” Michelle Cofield, deputy chief of staff at the DA’s office, said. 

For years, the DA’s staff  scrambled to find solutions when victims and witnesses didn’t show up in court-appropriate clothing. Legal assistants kept jackets on hand. One assistant district attorney stashed extra clothes in her office. 

In September, the DA’s Office established a lending closet of professional attire for victims and witnesses. A month earlier, the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys allocated $500 to each prosecutorial district to purchase clothes for people to borrow. Cofield had a week to order them off Amazon. 

Now, over 45 items hang on a garment rack in the corner of Room 8600, known as the guest room — a space for victims, witnesses, and their families to wait during court. 

In the middle of the rack, a black dress with hot pink and turquoise flowers sits next to four identical black cardigans, size medium to 2XL. There are two short-sleeve pointelle shrugs from Loft: one in black, one in white. A salmon-colored wraparound sweater with balloon sleeves is a favorite among office staff. 

“We relied heavily on sweaters,” Willets said. “It’s freezing in this building all the time.” 

DA staff donated a third of the clothing. Willets points to a black button-down top with white polka dots and a cheetah motif she once wore. Her husband’s old blue dress shirt is one of 10 in the closet. 

The range in clothing style and size ensures inclusivity. It also gives victims agency over a small part of the court process. 

“When people are victims of crime, part of that experience is having choice taken from you,” Willets said. “Something happened to you and you didn’t have a say in it. And so we try to give people back that choice wherever we can.” 

While a victim might feel comfortable in their own attire, DA staff considers how a judge or jury will view the outfit, Cofield said. Sometimes, playing a guessing game of “what people might perceive” means the DA’s office can present a more compelling case.

“We spend a lot of time working with our victims or witnesses and preparing them for court,” Cofield said. “We don’t need one other thing to get in the way.” 

The goal is for the victim’s clothing to appear neutral and not distract from their testimony.  If an outfit is deemed inappropriate or a wardrobe malfunction occurs, the closet is there. “Our court system is built using people,” Cofield said. “It’s not a series of automatons that are making the decisions.” 

People make assumptions based on how others are dressed. It’s inescapable. Cofield searched for the right word to describe why attire plays such a big role in the courtroom, particularly for victims.

She landed on “dignity.”

PHOTO ABOVE:  The Durham District Attorney’s Office provides clothes for victims and witnesses who may need appropriate attire for court. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Get your bearings together’

Ralph Pilgrim slumped into a seat next to his public defender at the front of Courtroom 5A. With an elbow on the arm of the chair, propping up his head, he tossed his navy blue cap aside, leaned back and closed his eyes. Pilgrim, 61, has been here before.

He was convicted in September 2019 for assaulting a woman. Instead of the maximum sentence of 150 days in jail, he received supervised probation for 24 months. After a probation violation in March 2020, his sentence was extended for 12 months. 

But on a Wednesday in late September, he was back in Durham County District Court for allegedly violating his probation again. Now, he faced possible jail time. 

In an ideal situation, a judge’s ruling definitively resolves a case. The verdict is simple and lasting. But sometimes, a judge’s adjudication doesn’t mean a case is over. Instead, a 24-month probation can turn into 36, which can turn into a jail sentence. Another series of court appearances begins, each visit newly unfamiliar and complicated, regardless of how many times one has entered a courtroom before. 

Judge Shamieka Rhinehart called the District Attorney’s office to introduce the case. Pilgrim stood up, towering over his public defender, Nicole Edwards. He was bald and heavyset, with thin wire-frame glasses. He wore acid-wash jeans and a gray graphic t-shirt that read “Good Vibes.”

In a matching tan suit and skirt, District Attorney intern Rachel Tucker introduced the case to Rhinehart. Her voice trembled, and she stopped in the middle of sentences to look down at her papers. 

Tucker alleged that Pilgrim left his last known address and intentionally did not inform his probation officer, Tomeka Hodges. 

She called Hodges to the stand. Hodges wore a gun in her holster and her badge on a chain around her neck. She recounted that Pilgrim missed his appointment with her on July 9. She went to his home on July 18 to check on him, learned that he no longer lived there, and reported him as absconding — the legal term for Pilgrim’s probation violation.

Then Edwards questioned Hodges: Had she looked into where Pilgrim worked? Had she contacted relatives in his file? Edwards, a petite woman with short blonde hair, spoke so closely to the microphone that when she asked the judge for a moment to collect her thoughts, her shallow breaths echoed in the near-empty room. 

Edwards contended that Pilgrim left his boarding house due to theft. When he found out that he had been charged with a probation violation, he turned himself in on July 30, according to Edwards.

“That’s wrong,” Hodges interjected. “I looked it up, and he didn’t.”

“So you’re suggesting the date on [his paperwork] is incorrect?” Edwards said.

“He possibly dated it wrong. He turned himself in on the 2nd,” Hodges said, as Pilgrim shook his head.

Edwards called Pilgrim to the stand. As he raised his hand to take the oath, he tripped on the wheels of a chair and stumbled. A chorus of “woah” rose from the lawyers and court staff. 

“Hold on there, get your bearings together,” Rhinehart said with a chuckle.  “We don’t need an accident.” 

Pilgrim sat down and cleared his throat, as Edwards asked him to introduce himself to the court. When he spoke into the microphone, the volume startled him and he recoiled. Edwards repeated the question and tried again. 

As he answered, Pilgrim often mumbled. He seemed unsure of himself and he rambled. Twice, Edwards cut him off. 

“Absconding to me is like, I’m running. Like I’m not letting anyone know, not even my mom, my sister, my brother, nobody knows,” he said. “That is definitely absconding, or what I think it is.” 

He said that he turned himself in on July 30. Then, he reconsidered, searching Rhinehart’s face as he spoke.

“I think it was the 30th,” Pilgrim said. “[Hodges] said it was the 2nd, but I don’t think it was the 2nd. It could have been, but I don’t think it was. I think it was on the 30th.” 

After Tucker questioned him, Edwards began her closing statement: “I would contend that Mr. Pilgrim did not willfully abscond his probation. To be an absconder you must—” 

A faint ring tone of Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Thru The Phone” interrupted her. Pilgrim sheepishly dug through his pockets and pulled out a red phone. The deputy walked over, silenced it, and placed it by the clerk’s desk. 

Rhinehart rubbed her eyes, and then her temples. Nearly an hour had passed. Because Pilgrim kept in contact with Hodges after he turned himself in, Rhinehart kept him on probation.

But her ruling still didn’t end the case: she ordered a check in for Pilgrim in late November. He will return to court again. 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘I used to be your neighbor?’

Outside the closed doors of Courtroom 6A one recent Tuesday morning, 24 potential jurors waited in a line, single file. They shared anxious glances with the people in front of and behind them as they fiddled with straps on their purses and messenger bags. 

When a clerk thrust the doors open at 10:30 a.m., the jurors shuffled in. One man in a gray-and- cream striped button-down shirt walked with a limp. Another woman wearing a bright floral shirt held a cane in one hand and a book in the other. None seemed eager to enter. 

Jury selection is a meticulous, tedious and, at times, impersonal process — strangers are brought together in the Durham County Courthouse and, one by one, quickly questioned about their life experiences as lawyers try to decide whether they will be fair and impartial. 

But, as soon became clear on this day, this same questioning can also be tricky when jurors and attorneys are all members of the same community. Sometimes, the process can even reveal unexpected connections.

Inside the courtroom, the group sat socially distanced — six in the jury box, which usually seats 12, while the rest filled the benches. Anyone not affiliated with the trial stood outside the courtroom until there was a seat available. 

The plaintiff, Ahmed Chahdi, sat upright next to his attorney, Robert Perry. In a white short-sleeve button-up shirt, Chahdi was a sharp contrast to defendant Jocelyn Mack, who wore a purple dress under a cheetah print fur coat. 

The two were in civil court for an incident that happened six years ago. Mack’s car collided with the wall of a convenience store where Chahdi worked as a cashier, according to Perry. Shelves fell on Chahdi and injured him. Now, Chahdi has sued Mack and another person for punitive damages. 

 When it was time for pretrial questioning, jury clerks passed sheets of questions to the attorneys.

“Does anyone know Judge [James] Hill? Anyone know any of the attorneys?” Perry rumbled, as he swiveled his chair to face the jurors, leaned back and crossed his legs. He held his papers in one hand and a pen in the other. 

Karen Briggs, in the second row of benches, slowly raised her hand. She wore jeans and a navy cable-knit sweater that matched the color of her mask. 

“You used to be my neighbor,” she said quietly. 

“I used to be your neighbor?” Perry repeated. Briggs nodded. 

“And I work with your wife,” Briggs added.  “She substitutes at my school.” 

Perry asked where she taught. He confirmed his wife works at the same school. 

But Briggs wasn’t finished: “And I taught your grandson.”

The room erupted into laughter. 

“All right, you did everything right then,” he responded, chuckling. 

Perry then asked if Briggs, as a juror, could be “fair and impartial.”

“I’ll be honest, I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s hard to separate knowing someone for me.” 

Perry deferred to the judge. “Ma’am, I think you can be fair, but I don’t want to push you into a compromising situation,” Hill said, and excused her from the case. She hurried from the room. 

Perry continued questioning the jurors, splitting his attention between the six in the jury box and the six on the benches. Mack often turned her head around to look at the jurors as they answered, but Chahdi did not.

Perry asked if anyone had sued someone or been sued. One man in the box, David Efird, raised his hand. Efird explained that as a partner at the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, he had sued people on behalf of his clients. 

The next topic was car accidents — if anyone had been in one, caused one or knew someone who had been involved in one. And, Perry asked, had anyone ever experienced neck injuries or seen a chiropractor. 

The jurors were quiet and monotonous, but never annoyed. No heavy sighs or impatient whispers. Some even offered up details, like the date of a crash or where their chiropractor was located. 

After an hour, though, only 15 prospective jurors remained, and some grew restless. One man in the box rubbed his head and shifted around in his seat. A woman on a bench picked at her nails. Even Judge Hill alternated between staring into the benches and typing at his desktop computer, the glare of the screen reflecting on his face shield. 

Then, Macon Patton was called by the clerks to replace Jennifer Cameron, who could not serve on a jury in Durham County because she lives in Orange County. Patton rattled off responses to Perry’s previous questions. On his last answer, he pointed at Efird. 

“My wife works in the same firm as this lawyer here,” Patton said. 

“Do you know this man?” Perry asked again and motioned to Efird.

“I do not,” Patton said, shaking his head. 

“But I do know his wife,” Efird jumped in, and the three men chuckled. Neither attorney objected to Patton sitting on the jury as scattered, tired laughs bounced around the courtroom. 

Efird added: “It’s good to meet you.”