Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published by “Milla Surjadi”

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.” 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Anything anybody want to say?’

The sound of metal leg cuffs pierced the hum of shuffled papers and creaky benches as Juan Gomez entered Courtroom 5A. For the half-hour Gomez was there, this was the most noise he made. In a room where words can shape one’s fate, he sat in silence, awaiting his own. 

In a muted red Durham County Jail jumpsuit, he took his seat in the front. Then, all eyes shifted back to Judge Nancy Gordon as she continued down the docket of thirteen domestic violence cases on Aug. 30.

Gomez, a 32-year-old with shoulder-length black hair, stared at the floor and waited for his name to be called. 

He was in District Court for assaulting a woman in late January. He failed to appear in court five times prior, according to Durham County Courthouse records. 

Yet Gomez found himself in the courtroom after a separate arrest in Rowan County in May put him in custody. He then spent 110 days in Durham County Jail. Now, he hoped Judge Gordon would accept his plea bargain. 

A few minutes before Gomez’s case began, two women entered the courtroom to watch his fate unfold. They came to support Gomez, according to his public defender Cassandra Tilley. 

Courtrooms are known for their drama, in part due to their iconic sounds — a witness’s oath, a jury’s verdict, the bang of a gavel. But sometimes, spoken word falls aside and silent communication takes center stage. 

This was the case for Gomez and the two women who sat in the last row of benches. Unable to mouth a greeting through their masks and seated too far away for Gomez to hear, they relied on gestures and facial expressions. 

The younger of the two locked eyes with Gomez and her breath hitched. She brought a hand to her mask, tilted her head sadly and blew him a kiss. Gomez lifted both hands as far as his cuffs would let him and waved sheepishly. 

The three of them waited as Judge Gordon finished other cases, glancing at each other from time to time.

The younger woman picked at a scab on her right hand. The older woman clenched her hands together. Judge Gordon finally called Gomez, their anxiety palpable.

The case moved quickly, as both sides looked to settle the matter. 

Although Jordan Childress, the victim, sat behind her attorney Michael Wilcox, she too, was silent. 

“Her only condition is that he not assault, threaten, harass, intimidate or interfere with her peaceful living,” said Wilcox, assistant district attorney in Durham County. Speaking on behalf of Childress,  he consented to the plea.

From a back corner of the room, the two women craned their necks and peered across in an attempt to catch a glimpse of Childress. Unsuccessful, they leaned back. One crossed her arms over her chest. The other sighed and returned to picking her scab. 

“Are you asking that he stay away from you?” Judge Gordon directed to Childress, her amplified voice cutting through the courtroom’s white noise. 

“No, not necessarily, I just…” Childress trailed off. 

“You just want him to not assault you,” Judge Gordon interjected.  

“Yeah, that’s fine,” she mumbled, as the judge asked her to stand up.  

In a white tank top, with an oversized black purse on her shoulder, Childress looked straight ahead at Judge Gordon, who deliberated silently. Gomez watched her from his corner. The two women glanced back and forth between them.

“Anything anybody want to say?” Judge Gordon snapped, but neither Gomez nor Childress said a word. 

Instead, Tilley spoke up. She asked the court to accept the plea and remit Gomez’s fines. He doesn’t anticipate finding a job upon release and hasn’t made any money in the last three months in jail. In short, he couldn’t afford Tilley’s services. 

“I’ll accept the plea, I’ll remit the money,” Judge Gordon said, with the begrudging tone of someone dissatisfied with the choices presented. 

If she hadn’t accepted the plea, Gomez would only face another 40 days in jail. The maximum punishment for assault on a female in North Carolina is 150 days, and he already served 110.

“Don’t assault her again,” she warned Gomez. Turning to Childress, she advised, “And you need to be smart.” 

The two women still held their breath, as Judge Gordon called the next name on the docket. The case was over, but their conversation with Gomez was not – he waved, and the younger woman placed her right hand over her heart in response. He rubbed his eyes and looked back at the floor.