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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.”

DA Deberry’s progressive agenda put on trial at town hall meeting

Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered last year in Burlington. The person charged with killing the 18-year-old and two others had multiple prior violent convictions, including homicide, but was released on probation.

“When he committed armed robbery, it was like this murder didn’t exist,” Jones told the 9th Street Journal. “He got a smack on the hand and probation.”

Now, Jones says he is fighting against policies that he considers to be too lenient on violent offenders. He’s particularly concerned about plea deals for people who have been previously convicted of a violent crime. 

District Attorney Satana Deberry’s annual report shows that she relied heavily on pleas for murder convictions — just three of 25 convictions were decided by a jury trial, doubling the previous year’s total number of plea convictions. 

Jones took the microphone at a town hall event Thursday to ask about her office’s role in keeping the community safe when releasing violent offenders. 

“How can that be of any good to the community?” Jones asked. “How do you all play a part in being responsible for turning that murderer loose back into the community?”

“This is not a science,” Deberry responded. “We cannot predict down the road what’s going to happen. I’m sorry about what happened with your grandson … What I can say is we don’t take any homicide plea lightly.” 

During the event held at St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church near North Carolina Central University and attended by hundreds, community members, like Jones, questioned Deberry’s progressive stance on prosecution. 

In her first year in office, Deberry has discouraged cash bail for lower-level crimes and welcomed less traditional methods such as restorative justice. But she has weathered her fair share of criticism. Half of her staff has changed since she took over in January 2019, with some quitting over disagreements about her approach. 

Deberry used Thursday’s town hall to tout her accomplishments from her first year in office, which include: 

  • Prioritizing more serious crimes

Deberry reported a 12 percent drop in the jail population since enacting a policy to no longer seek cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors and minor felonies. The goal: to not punish people who can’t afford to pay with jail time. 

“We don’t want to send people to prison. We don’t think that’s our job,” Deberry said. “We want to reserve the criminal justice system for those people who we don’t really have tools to deal with. Those are the people who commit the most serious crimes.” 

Instead of spending more time on lower-level offenses, Deberry said her office has prioritized more serious crimes. Her office got 25 homicide convictions in her first year in office, 10 more than the previous year. 

Deberry has prioritized cutting down Durham’s backlog of homicide cases. In one year, she has closed one-third of them.

  • Calling for cooperation to curb gun violence

Nearly 200 people were shot in Durham last year. At the recent town hall event, Deberry moderated a panel discussing how her office was responding to gun violence. 

Officials in Deberry’s office said they have focused on collaborating with law enforcement and prosecuting people who are involved in gangs or “in close proximity to violence.” But they can’t keep the community safer on their own, they said. 

Deberry urged witnesses to come forward to help combat gun violence, explaining that her office works to protect witnesses. 

“On television … you see people put a bullet into a machine and the machine spits out a mugshot. We don’t have that technology,” Deberry said. “The absolute best evidence in any case is you.” 

  • Implementing alternative practices 

Deberry has expanded the use of restorative justice, a practice that voluntarily brings the victim and the accused together to promote healing. 

Her office has also expanded referrals to a cognitive behavioral intervention program. This course, which helps people who may have committed crimes improve decision-making, used to be available only after conviction, but now people can be referred before trial. 

“Our goal is not just to punish crime, it is to reduce crime. We want people to not come back to the system,” Deberry said.

Deberry’s office also helped wipe $1.5 million in traffic debt that had barred thousands of people from reinstating their driver’s licenses.

At top: Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn speaks at a town hall event for the District Attorney’s office on Thursday, Jan. 30. Photo by Corey Pilson

CORRECTION: This story has been updated. An earlier version misstated where Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered. 

Bishop attorney accuses prosecutor of misconduct

A defense attorney has leveled a new allegation that prosecutors made serious missteps in the case against Alexander Bishop, a Durham teenager accused of killing his wealthy father, Bill Bishop. 

This time, Bishop’s attorney Allyn Sharp accused Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry of destroying evidence, making misrepresentations to the court, violating a discovery order, and intentionally withholding evidence that would damage the case against Alexander. 

Sharp filed a motion in December asking that Deberry, Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Hopkins Thomas, and lead police investigator Tony Huelsman be held in contempt for failing to comply with their discovery order. 

“The District Attorney’s repeated misrepresentations to this Court make clear that the District Attorney’s violations of her obligations and abuses of her authority have been willful and in bad faith,” Sharp wrote in the filing. Being held in contempt could mean up to six months in prison, censure, and fines up to $500, according to North Carolina law

Sharp prevailed the last time she filed a motion with accusations of misconduct. In October, Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. tossed swaths of key evidence after he found that Huelsman made false statements or ones in “reckless disregard of the truth,” and even accused him of “invent[ing] facts.”

Asked about Sharp’s new motion, Durham District Attorney spokesperson Sarah Willets said the office is “committed” to meeting its obligation to turn over evidence in the case and has “made no declaration that discovery in this case is complete,” she told the 9th Street Journal. 

Willets declined to comment further on the motion. No date for a hearing on the motion has been set, she said. 

Sharp: Prosecution ‘Deliberately withholding evidence’

Bill Bishop, a real estate developer, was found in his Hope Valley home with a dog leash wrapped around his neck in April 2018, his son claimed. Police quickly focused on Alexander, and the teenager was charged with killing Bill in February 2019. Alexander’s attorneys then filed a routine request for discovery, a process in which the defense receives evidence from the prosecution. 

But the teenager’s attorneys contend there were many things missing when they received the evidence. So in April 2019, the Superior Court directed Sharp to provide prosecutors with a list of the 33 “missing or incomplete” items, the filing says. But nearly a month later, Alexander’s attorneys said they had received none of the items. 

Among the missing evidence: footage from police body cameras. And when the defense received footage on May 9, 2019, they say they received 15 of the 19 recordings it had requested. 

Sharp asked for the missing videos. Instead, she got four copies of videos she had already received. It took another email to get the correct missing videos.

They ended up being important in the case. They showed a conversation between Alexander and a Durham firefighter that Hudson later ruled Huelsman had misrepresented in his search warrants. 

Sharp wrote in the new filing that “it is evident that the District Attorney and/or Investigator Huelsman are deliberately withholding evidence which they know undermines the State’s case, providing items only after they are specifically identified as missing by undersigned counsel, and even then refusing to provide items which clearly contradict Investigator Huelsman’s sworn statements.” 

Some of the missing evidence from discovery was correspondence between Bill’s ex-girlfriend, Julie Seel, and Huelsman. 

Another missing item: information from Bill’s laptop, which Sharp complained about in a May motion for discovery sanctions. 

Sharp also alleged that Deberry “destroyed” evidence in the discovery process by changing Huelsman’s titles of documents to new ones that were “often false or misleading.” 

Sharp accused Huelsman of perjury after testifying in September that he turned over a complete file when he had in fact not. Hopkins-Thomas, an assistant district attorney, knew he was not telling the truth and had an “ethical obligation” to tell the court and did not, Sharp argued. 

Hudson ordered Deberry to produce “complete discovery files” within two weeks in September. They have not yet been provided, Sharp wrote in the Dec. 17 motion. 

Other ‘misrepresentations’ and ‘abuses of authority’

Another complaint centers on the “missing gold” in the case. When Alexander was indicted for murder, a judge deemed him to be a flight risk and sealed the indictment based on Huelsman’s claims of missing gold from Bill that seemed to be a possible motive. But the gold was not, in fact, missing. 

Sharp also seemingly called into question the sincerity of Huelsman’s belief that Alexander was a flight risk. She said Huelsman waited several days to arrest Alexander after the court sealed the indictment and then arrested him on a Friday so he had to spend the weekend in jail before his first appearance. 

Sharp also accused Deberry of using her powers as prosecutor to shop for an inexperienced judge and waiting to tell Alexander’s defense team. She said Deberry failed to put Alexander’s first appearance on the calendar and then sent it to a “visiting, newly-elected judge.” A courthouse deputy had told Sharp that Hopkins-Thomas informed them to bring Alexander’s case to the courtroom where the new judge was, not to Hudson, a veteran judge.

In that courtroom, several media cameras were already put up, indicating that Deberry had told the media — and not Sharp — where Alexander’s court appearance would be. But Hudson switched courtrooms to take the hearing. 

Overall, Sharp argued Deberry did all of these things to slow down the case and damage Alexander’s defense. 

“The District Attorney has made material misrepresentations to this Court; filed frivolous motions; delayed service of filed noticed and motions and committed repeated frauds upon this Court by certifying otherwise; and abused her calendaring authority with regard to the scheduling of motions in this Court, all in her continuous efforts to delay this case and to prejudice Alexander’s defense.” 

(Photo at top of Allyn Sharp, Alexander Bishop’s attorney. Photo by Cameron Beach | The 9th Street Journal)

Satana Deberry and the quest to reform justice in Durham

When you walk into the square gray box that is the Durham County courthouse, you find yourself in a sterile administrative wasteland of brownish stone walls and cold hard floors. You can feel like you’re in trouble even if you’re just there to visit.

But on the eighth floor, in an office nestled in the back, there is a speck of color on Satana Deberry’s feet – bright red Chuck Taylor high-tops. Before she goes to work as Durham County’s district attorney, she laces up those sneakers to complement her pantsuit and her silver hoop earrings. 

Satana Deberry does not resemble the district attorneys you see on crime shows or in most cities. She can be stern and serious when the occasion demands it, but she laughs a lot – so much that her staff tracks her location by the volume of her laugh echoing through the halls. (She’s been a stand-up comedian.) 

Deberry’s signature Chuck Taylor high-tops. | Photo by Erin Williams

In addition to being a woman of color in a field where 95 percent of elected prosecutors are white and 76 percent are men, Deberry has a unique way of looking at justice. She is the antithesis of the Harvey Dent-style white knight of Gotham City, intent on locking up all the bad guys. She is part of a national movement of new district attorneys working to address mass incarceration and disparities in the justice system by being more deliberate about prosecutions.

With her policies, persona, and personnel changes – she says there’s been a 50 percent turnover in her office since she arrived –  Deberry is challenging the status quo. That makes some people uncomfortable, but she is accustomed to that.

She is a queer single mother of three whose birth certificate categorizes her as “negro” and whose great-great-grandmother was enslaved just two hours southeast of Durham in Anson County. She graduated from Princeton and then from Duke Law School. She has never fit neatly into the box of others’ expectations.

The end game is not convictions, the end game is justice

Prosecutors – the real ones as well as the fictional ones like Harvey Dent – often see their work as good versus evil. But Deberry says it’s more complex and she sees people carrying the weight of their experiences when they walk into the courthouse. 

That’s a shift in the script for district attorneys, who often vilify criminals in their campaign ads and boast about high conviction rates. 

The “tough on crime” era, beginning in the 1980s with policies such as mandatory minimum sentences and truth in sentencing laws, packed the nation’s prisons. The number of people incarcerated has quintupled in the past 40 years, giving the United States the highest rate in the world, with black people incarcerated at more than five-times the rate of white people.

Prosecutors have tremendous power – not just about which cases to pursue, but what the outcome should be. Through plea bargains and sentencing, they have immense control over people’s futures. Deberry looks at her job holistically. “I’m not the police, and there are not many prosecutors offices who will say that,” she said. “My job is to get to the truth.”

She emphasizes that the prosecutor represents the commonwealth. That includes the victim, but it also includes the community and the defendant. 

Deberry said she will focus her office’s resources on prosecuting homicide and violent felonies instead of low-level crimes like marijuana possession for personal use. She also implemented a pretrial release policy that enables people to get out of jail on a written promise to appear in court – limiting the use of cash bail – which has led to a 12 percent decrease in the jail population.

“There are a couple of ways you can do this job,” Deberry said, noting that her approach is more difficult. “It’s a lot easier to be tough on crime because you don’t have to think about your impact on people’s lives or on the community. That makes it easier to do the work and it leaves it on your desk… it’s harder to look at each individual case and look at each defendant as a human being.” 

Ruffled feathers

Occasionally you can see glimpses of how she has challenged courthouse norms. 

During homicide status day – which occurs four times a year to give the judge an update on all of the pending homicide cases – Deberry asked a court deputy to retrieve a defendant from jail so he could hear an update on his case. The deputy refused, arguing that it would cause too much chaos in the courtroom. He said they never brought defendants under the former district attorney. Deberry tensed up, frustrated that he would challenge her authority in open court. 

After a lot of back and forth, she eventually got her way. But Deberry was not happy.

“Corporal!” She shouted as he was stepping onto the elevator. When he turned around, she looked him in the eye and said, “When I request a defendant, the defendant comes.” 

“It is important that a defendant be present for a hearing pertaining to his rights,” she added. 

He replied that he was only doing his job to avoid a disruption and that he reports to the sheriff, not her.

“I absolutely respect what you do in there in terms of safety and security,” Deberry said. “But we need to come to an understanding about who is in charge of that courtroom. When I am standing outside on the steps of the courthouse, I defer to the sheriff. But inside the courtroom, I have the final say as the elected district attorney.”

Back in her office, she told her prosecutors about the incident. “I am slow to offend,” she said while leaning on the door frame, but this had irked her. 

Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, an assistant district attorney, agreed with her boss and said that she thinks all defendants should be present for homicide status day. “Otherwise they won’t see the light of a courtroom for like two years,” she said. 

Deberry said policies have been easier to change than attitudes.  “The interaction with the bailiff today shows that the culture in the courtroom hasn’t changed as much as it should have.”

New blood

The 50% turnover in her legal team gave Deberry an opportunity to shift the focus in her office. Most of her hires had been defense attorneys or worked in academia, which Deberry says has brought fresh perspectives. 

Not everyone believes her new hires have what it takes.

“Frankly, almost everyone with experience has left,” said Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry for district attorney in the 2018 primary. “You need people who actually know the system.”

But Deberry says their experience outside the role of prosecutor is precisely what equips them to implement her reforms.

For example, she hired Beth Hopkins Thomas, former juvenile defense attorney and school teacher, to handle all juvenile cases, from low-level nonviolent crimes to homicide. 

Together she and Deberry made the decision to stop taking court referrals for school based-incidents because they believe that students’ behavioral challenges are better handled by educators. Kids who are exposed to the criminal justice system often grow into adults who stay in the criminal justice system. 

“I was a teacher before I went to law school and I watched that pipeline stem from my school,” Hopkins Thomas said. “Having the ability to say we are not going to be participating in this pipeline is very empowering.”

Meier said that Deberry’s hires, many of whom come from social justice backgrounds, don’t have the right stomach for prosecuting criminals.  He pointed to Alyson Grine — a prosecutor for homicide and violent crimes — as an example. “She went from a liberal position – reform the system, fight racial bias – to having to send people to prison for the rest of their lives.” 

Deberry said the heavy caseload can quickly tempt her new hires to be more prosecutorial than they expected, so they are constantly having conversations to ask themselves “not only can we prosecute this, but should we?” 

“We see horrible things. It is natural as a human being to respond to those.” She said even if the crime is nonviolent, the desire for retribution is often a natural reflex. “And so we really just want to always be double checking ourselves and saying, is our response getting to the truth? Is it fair? Is it just?”

A national movement

Deberry is part of a new movement of progressive prosecutors. They come together frequently through an organization called Fair and Just Prosecution that is trying to redefine the role of district attorneys. 

Members have traveled to Germany and Portugal to compare other countries’ approaches to justice. “The number one thing I learned from both of those places — that I already knew but is driven home when you go somewhere else — is how punitive we are in the United States,” Deberry said. “We really like to punish people and we think of that almost as a virtue.”

Deberry is particularly close to Rachael Rollins, the district attorney from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes Boston. Rollins took office the day before Deberry and the two have a lot in common. 

“Particularly the black female DAs, we have a text chain we are all in. We like to remain in contact with each other. If somebody has a particularly terrible day, we are there for each other, which is really nice,” Rollins said.

As a woman of color from the rural South, Deberry faced countless obstacles to get where she is today. In high school when she interviewed for a prestigious scholarship at the University of Chapel Hill, she was accused of plagiarizing her essay by one of the committee members. “He just could not believe that a black kid from Hamlet could have written it.”

“I thought I was growing up in an America where I could do anything, but really there were other people making these decisions about what schools I got to go to, and what classes I got to take, even what schools I applied to.” When she decided to apply to Princeton, she got a lot of pushback from guidance counselors and teachers.  “There was a lot of discouragement because they thought I was doing something that was ‘above my raisin’.’’’

Both Rollins and Deberry also have family members who have been involved with the justice system. After law school and some time practicing in D.C., Deberry returned to her hometown of Hamlet, North Carolina, and she was asked to defend her cousin who was charged with murder.

“I saw people who I had grown up with involved in the criminal justice system, many of whom had never left and did not finish high school,” Deberry said. “I also saw how, in a community that was not majority black, the criminal justice system is almost entirely black.”

Those experiences are why Deberry balks at comments from Meier, who says she “has a fundamental lack of understanding of the system,” and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, who says that the work of progressive prosecutors is “demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety.” 

“I would say in response to that, they are the ones who don’t understand the role of the prosecutor,” Deberry said. 

“I think we understand fully what the discretion of prosecutors has wrought in this country. There was nothing wrong with the discretion of the prosecutor for the hundreds of years in which it was used to marginalize and criminalize people. Now all of a sudden, because people who look like me have that discretion, they want to paint it as illegitimate.”

She makes a similar point when she introduces herself in speeches:

“I am Satana Deberry,” she says. “I am the district attorney of the 16th prosecutorial district… I tell you my name, not because you don’t know it. I tell you my name because every day in this country and this community there are people who go nameless. People who have been failed by one system after another. People who often look like me.”

Update: This story has been corrected with details about Deberry’s office, her Chucks and the role of prosecutor Alyson Grine.  

At the courthouse, replacing ‘shucks’ with modern record-keeping

The record-keeping system at the Durham courthouse is a glimpse back in time.

A large room in the Durham clerk’s office has drawers full of tightly rolled ribbons of film. An assistant clerk feeds a strip of “microfilm” into an old-fashioned grey machine and turns a knob. The black and white screen shows court records from as recently as twelve years ago.

Court records at the Durham courthouse are still kept on microfilm. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

A few steps over, there are stacks of large judgment books, bound in canvas and leather. Inside the books, in carefully crafted cursive, live the names of defendants and plaintiffs alongside their verdicts from cases until 2007. 

The clerk’s office is like a museum of record-keeping from the 1900s, with systems and documents that are reminiscent of generations past. Durham is typical of the rest of the state. It is still reliant on ancient computers and cardboard boxes stuffed with files.

Records from as recent as 2007 were still logged in leather-bound books – in cursive handwriting. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

But officials say help is on the way. A new initiative will bring a new electronic records system to Durham and other North Carolina courts over the next five years.

Mending a “Patchwork Quilt”

Archie Smith, the clerk for Durham Superior Court, says the state’s courthouses have been relying on a “patchwork quilt” of technology that “began to show its age.” 

In 2015, the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court studied the needs of courts throughout the state. One of the top priorities was technology.

As a result, the Administrative Office of the Courts signed a contract in July with Tyler Technologies, a Texas software company, to move North Carolina to a modernized system using their Odyssey case management tool.  

Christopher Mears, a spokesperson for the state office of the courts, said the specifics are still being ironed out.

“We ultimately are paving the way for a virtual courthouse,” he said in an email.

When it’s finished, Durham and other counties will get modern integrated systems so clerks can manage documents, keep track of finances, and help lawyers file their motions online.

The project is expected to roll to a few pilot counties by March 2021. 

“From Murphy to Manteo, everyone will be on the same system,” Smith said. 

Frozen in Time

Today, clerks are surprisingly dependent on paper and outdated technologies. Consider the situation in Durham’s District Court, which relies on antique-looking monochrome computers and envelopes known as “shucks.”

Shucks. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

The District Court clerk’s office first receives law enforcement agencies’ records, which are often adorned with hasty, illegible scrawl. 

Clerks then stuff these documents in color-coded shucks: grey for infractions, brown for traffic violations, white for criminal cases, and yellow for DWIs. 

An assistant clerk sits in front of a green and black screen, reminiscent of arcade games like “Space Invaders” from the age before color displays. She manually transfers each case’s details the court’s electronic database. 

Then, the shucks are moved to cardboard boxes, which fill a narrow room up to the ceiling. 

The monochrome monitors look like they were made in the 1980s. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

Sometimes, the documents are scanned and put onto CDs. The woman who scans them dips her hands in a pink tub of fingertip moistener, used by archivists who sort through thousands of parchments daily, so she can better grip the paper. 

The difficulty in finding an old case depends on how it was archived. If someone requests a file from the late 1900s, staff must leaf through the aged pages of the leather-bound judgement books or hand-spin the microfilm tapes on a machine that bears a striking resemblance to the first television. 

Court records are like time capsules, since documents remain in the format they were originally stored, Williams said. 

“Helping People at the Lowest Points in their Lives” 

The goal of the new system: make the court more efficient. 

“I expect that we’ll be completely electronic, other than scratch paper that you’d write notes to yourself,” Smith said. After all, North Carolina courts are running out of space to keep paper files. 

Electronic records sound promising. William Sheppard, Chief Deputy of the Dekalb County Clerk of Superior Court in Georgia, oversaw the county’s successful transition to the Odyssey Case Management software in 2016.

Boxes and boxes of shucks | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

He says the system has saved time for the county’s staff and clients. Financial processing that once took two weeks is now complete within a day. 

But paper hasn’t disappeared from the courthouse. 

“We call it paper on-demand,” Sheppard said. It is still available, but they try to avoid print where possible. 

Blair Williams, Wake County’s Superior Court clerk, says he wants the technology to help humanize the court system. 

“I want to eliminate the keystrokes because they keep us from doing what we do best: helping people at the lowest points in their lives,” he said. 

“It Can’t Tell the Story that the Paper Can” 

Williams says it won’t be easy to get court staffers throughout the state to give up their familiar procedures. .

And others are wary about depending on technology. Lynn Vaughan, an assistant clerk of courts in Durham, said, 

“The computer system might be great, but it can’t tell the story that the paper can.” 

Technology often has glitches. Tyler Technologies, the creator of the Odyssey system, has faced reports of causing wrongful arrests, prolonged jail time, and premature releases in Alameda County, Calif., Shelby County, Tenn., and Marion County, Ind

These issues may stem from problems with the Odyssey software, including incompatibility with prior electronic systems or data-entry backlogs that delay cases from getting updated. 

Jennifer Kepler, a spokesperson for Tyler Technologies, defends the software. She said that

budget deficits in Alameda accounted for the county’s premature adoption of Odyssey, against Tyler’s recommendation. In Shelby and Marion, Odyssey was being blamed for issues caused by other court technologies, she said. 

Today, Kepler says the three counties are “satisfied clients,” with Shelby and Alameda counties winning 2019 Tyler Excellence Awards for their innovative use of the software. 

However, possible difficulties with the technology remain on North Carolina’s radar.

“If there’s a failure in the system, the injury to the courthouse process would be colossal in scope,” Smith said. “As cumbersome as the old system was, there was a certain amount of security in that warm fuzzy blanket of paper.” Smith said. 

Despite those reports, Smith and Williams agree that the computerized system will be an important step forward. 

“North Carolina is blazing a path for the courts of the nation.” Smith said. 

But chucking the shucks? That might take a generation on its own.

In photo at top, shucks for District Court cases are stored in cardboard boxes. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

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.”

‘That was my last resort’: Durham’s second chance for tenants

Vickie Castillo has lived in Durham for nearly three decades. After failing to make one month’s rent in November, she faced the possibility of being evicted for the first time in her life.

“I felt scared. I was nervous. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if I was going to have all the money in time,” she said.

Eviction court is notoriously difficult for tenants to navigate. When they don’t have lawyers, tenants almost always lose and get kicked out of their homes.

They get evicted even when they have reasons for not paying such as losing a job, having a sick relative, or a broken-down car. And it doesn’t matter if they were purposely not paying rent to pressure the landlord to address issues with rodents, cockroaches, clogged plumbing, and more.

North Carolina doesn’t allow retaliatory action from tenants, and the court doesn’t have any leeway to give a tenant just a few more days to get the money together. If there’s unpaid rent, the landlord can seek an eviction judgment.

Castillo’s situation was unusual. She didn’t retaliate against her landlord, and she didn’t expect to come up short at the first of the month. She had been robbed, and had to scramble to make rent for November. She couldn’t and soon received the paperwork summoning her to the courthouse.

In court, the magistrate doles out eviction judgments every weekday. Tenants have 10 days to appeal their case to District Court. But to stay in their property in the meantime, the tenant will have to pay a bond, which includes the overdue rent and court costs.

Most evictions end here, in the magistrate’s hearing room. Tenants without representation rarely stand a chance of stopping the process. But Durham’s new eviction diversion program is, for some tenants, a fighting chance to stay in their homes.

***

The third floor of the courthouse is eviction headquarters. Tenants congregate around three magistrate hearing rooms. On the wall is a docket with nearly a dozen pages with green, blue, and pink highlighter marks trying to give order to the chaos. Cases are processed by the dozen—sometimes there will be over 100 before lunch.

A flyer for the program is hard to notice in the courthouse.

About 20 steps away, sandwiched between a call for participants for a maternal incarceration study and an ad for the Bull City Chili Cook Off is a blue and green flyer that is easy to miss.

Are you interested in possibly preventing an eviction and possibly avoiding a judgment against you?

The flyer’s text can barely be seen from two feet away, let alone from the eviction docket where most tenants wait. On Wednesday afternoons, the lawyers from the program will meet downstairs, and tenants are invited to bring leases, late notices, and court paperwork for review.

Most tenants don’t see the flyer in time to get help. Some might see it on their way to the docket, but once they head into the courtroom, their fate is sealed. Eviction court doesn’t grant tenants an extension to pull together money for unpaid rent or find a lawyer.

The diversion program is supported by Duke Civil Justice Clinic, a partnership between Duke Law School and Legal Aid of North Carolina. Law students represent tenants in eviction cases with guidance from Jesse McCoy, the clinic’s supervising attorney. The clinic helps tenants pay rent and reviews their case to make sure tenants aren’t overlooking serious concerns with the property that could help them win.

Tenants “myopically focus on the rent that’s due as opposed to also talking about some of the conditions that they’ve been living in,” McCoy said. People often don’t focus on the condition of the property, which might help them build a defense against being evicted.

Even if the students can’t find a legal defense for the tenant, they’ll try to postpone the hearing so people can move out with dignity. The goal of the clinic is to avoid collateral damage of a judgment such as a bad credit report.

***

After she was robbed, Castillo knew that she wouldn’t be able to pay the rent. Desperate to work out a solution, she reached out to churches in the area. She thought she scraped together enough donations to piece together that month’s rent.

And yet it wasn’t enough. Up against an eviction case, she found herself just short of the money she needed to cover the unpaid rent. But one of the churches gave her something more valuable: information about the Duke Civil Justice Clinic.

“That was my last resort,” Castillo said. “I heard about them at the last minute. And I went, because I was just going everywhere, where people were pointing me to, and so then Legal Aid was my last resort.”

Castillo was given a four-week extension on her rent, and with the help of the Civil Justice Clinic’s fund, she was able to cover the remainder of November’s rent. But a December court date still loomed.

Sometimes, the money is enough—the landlord will collect what they’re owed, and no one has to lose their home. In some cases, though, the landlord still wants the tenant gone.

Castillo’s advocate from the clinic was able to get her case dismissed. That won’t be reflected on her credit report or in any public record that could come back to hurt her. She fared better than most tenants: in a sample of eviction cases from December 2017, just 9% of cases were dismissed.

Most tenants are doomed as soon as they’re served with the eviction case, but for Vickie Castillo, one-time assistance from Duke Civil Justice Clinic kept her finances from falling off the rails.

“That’s what they did,” she said. “It was wonderful.”

‘You don’t know what’s behind the door’: Inside Durham’s evictions

Durham County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Wood has the job that no one wants – especially not today, just a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, in the freezing weather.

Today is “padlock Friday,” the end to yet another week of evictions.

Wood has a stack of papers sandwiched between the sun visor and the roof of his white sheriff’s cruiser. Each one is a court order to complete an eviction, or a padlock, as they call it in the sheriff’s office.

It’s just above freezing, so Wood will have on his embroidered “sheriff” beanie, which falls just inches above his glasses. With a puffy black jacket on and a laptop that’s next to his steering wheel, there’s not much room left on the driver’s side of the car.

He’ll spend the day meeting with landlords and property managers, searching houses and apartments, and making sure that the locks have been changed on those properties so the evicted tenants cannot return.

Sometimes he finds families with children, abandoned pets, or, in one case, a tenant inflicting injuries on herself. But there’s nothing the sheriff’s office can do to change the eviction, Deputy Wood says.

“They were going to lose the property or wherever they live long before I got there,” he says, “and if it hadn’t been me doing it it’d have been somebody else.”

Durham saw 9,335 evictions in 2018, or about 180 every week. 

They all start with the same letter, calling the tenant to small claims court to answer for their failure to pay rent.

The tenant isn’t obligated to come to court, but if they don’t show, the eviction process will continue without them, Wood says.

***

Eviction court starts at 9 a.m. sharp nearly every weekday. Get there late for your hearing, and you might miss it in the sea of dozens scheduled for that morning. 

On some mornings, the magistrates will hear well over 100 cases, especially at the start of the month, when landlords file more claims.

Once defendants find their names on the docket outside, they slip quietly into one of the hearing rooms. Unlike in District Court, defendants here are handled first-come, first-served.

There’s no bailiff or court reporter. The only record of each hearing will be the magistrate’s scribbles on the back of the case envelope.

There are two tables. One is for the landlord and an attorney; the other is for the tenant and their attorney. But tenants rarely have one.

Sometimes, the landlords won’t show up. They’ll contract the case out to a law firm that specializes in eviction cases; lawyers will come in about every month or so, outgunning dozens of tenants in just minutes each.

Is your agreed-upon rent $550 per month?

Did you fail to pay rent for the months of September and October?

Are you still in possession of the property?

Tenants will admit that yes, they did sign the lease. And yes, that is the amount of rent that they agreed to. Yes, they missed rent for a month or two, but they were in a bind. They just lost their job, or their spouse died. Or their car broke down. Or a relative was sick. 

And many tenants tell eye-opening stories about poor conditions. Tammie Gibson said her rental home turned from a family atmosphere into a nightmare, a toxic environment that led her to develop depression. She described a stove that routinely caught fire, persistent issues with rats, and domestic disputes with other residents.

“I didn’t want to be there a minute longer,” she said to the magistrate.

Sometimes, tenants purposely won’t pay their rent to try to force their landlord to address a nagging problem such as a rodent infestation or perpetually clogged plumbing.

But North Carolina doesn’t allow this retaliatory action. If you live there, you have to pay for it.

The court also has no responsibility to evaluate why tenants can’t or won’t pay. Despite Durham’s problem with skyrocketing rents, with average rent rising 15% in the past three years, the court cannot grant tenants reprieve. From the court’s perspective, it’s simple: the tenant hasn’t paid rent, and the landlord needs the property back. The magistrate then has to rule against the tenant. 

Unless the tenant appeals the judgment within 10 days, it becomes a permanent eviction record, influencing credit scores and job applications for years to come.

***

Once that judgment is processed by the court, it’s added to Deputy Wood’s docket of padlocks.

He crisscrosses Durham every day, from downtown luxury apartments to public housing to  new suburban townhomes. Every hour, on the hour, he has an appointment to meet with a landlord to enforce the court’s ruling.

Deputy Michael Wood  | Photo courtesy of the Durham Sheriff’s Office

“You’re there for a job. You’re not there to judge people,” he says.

When he arrives, he gives the landlords his standard spiel: the tenant has seven days to reach out to the landlord to retrieve their property. Whatever is left in the property, whether it’s an unplugged fridge with rotting food or hordes of roaches scurrying around the corners, is up to the landlord to deal with.

He avoids most of their questions, advising them to get legal advice from somewhere else.

He knocks and presses his ear against the door, listening for movement to assess what he’ll face inside.

“With a padlock,” he says, “you don’t know what’s behind the door. You don’t know what’s in there. You have no idea.”

He walks in and holds up a flashlight as he searches rooms, closets, and cabinets,, hoping to avoid a possible threat around the corner.

People hide, he says. They’ll hide in nooks and crannies around the house, hoping to stave off eviction for a few more days, clinging to the time they have left.

But there’s no wiggle room, he says. He can’t give a tenant a couple hours, regardless how dire the situation. He is required to complete the eviction.

“At some point they have to know if they haven’t been paying their rent or fulfilling their obligation to the landlord … they’re being evicted,” he says.

A rare and lucky few will successfully appeal their eviction in District Court and get to stay in  their home.

Many others will work it out with their landlords — last-ditch efforts to cover the overdue rent or hastily work out a payment plan. 

“We’re standing there, the locks are in hand, they’re about to get changed and (the landlord and tenant will) make a deal or they’ll work it out and they’ll stop,” Wood says.

More often than not, though, he’ll find an empty property. Maybe the tenant left to avoid embarrassment, or maybe they fled the country, fleeing their eviction record as well.

But there’s nothing he can do about it now. He posts the orange sign and leaves.

In photo at top: Deputy Wood posts this sign before a landlord changes the lock. Once a padlock is complete, the tenant has seven days to arrange a time to pick up their belongings. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda | The 9th Street Journal

The death of Bill Bishop: Was it a heart attack?

This is the second in a series exploring theories into Bill Bishop’s death.

After developer Bill Bishop was apparently found unconscious with a dog leash around his neck and later died, investigators became suspicious of his teenage son Alexander and charged him with murder.

Alexander has suggested it was a tragic accident caused by the family dog, Winston. Yet Bishop’s ex-wife and family has posed a simpler explanation: Bill died of a heart attack.

But the heart attack theory doesn’t hold up very well. Four forensics experts who reviewed his autopsy report for the 9th Street Journal were doubtful that Bill died of a heart attack. Three said there was no evidence of one, and the fourth said it was unlikely. 

“There’s no evidence of a cardiac event. The defense is just trying to fish,” said Bill Smock, police surgeon for the Louisville Metro Police Department and a staff member of the Training Institute for Strangulation Prevention in San Diego. 

Where is the case now?

It’s not clear how much Alexander’s attorney Allyn Sharp will rely on a possible cardiac event in her defense. With the case far from trial amid of a backlog of murder cases, she has a lot of time to prepare. 

Sharp did not respond to request for comment in time for publication. She has previously told the 9th Street Journal that she will not speak about the case outside the court record. 

In a February hearing, Sharp said Alexander didn’t kill Bill, never had any issues with discipline, and had no motive to kill his father. 

Alexander told first responders on April 18, 2018 he found Bill unresponsive in the theater of the family’s Hope Valley home. He said his father was in an armchair with Winston’s leash wrapped around his neck, with Winston still on the leash, according to court documents. Bill died three days later at Duke Hospital. 

The case was shaken up earlier this fall when Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. threw out swaths of key evidence that implied Alexander had plotted to kill Bill and reap the benefits of his $5.5 million estate, pending an appeal. 

“When you remove those material misstatements and omissions, it is simply a death that is tragic, but not suspicious,” Sharp said at a September hearing in her eventually successful bid to exclude evidence.

There has not been a trial date set in the case. Alexander, who was 16 at the time of his father’s death, is free on a $250,000 unsecured bond. 

Alexander suggests the dog did it; family blames heart attack

How will Sharp build her case to defend Alexander? There are clues in his statements to first responders and comments that family members have made to the media.

Before calling 911 that evening, Alexander called his mother, Sharon Bishop, five times. In the 911 call, Alexander said he thought that Bill was dead and that he took the leash off his neck. 

“I think my dog got his [leash] wrapped around his throat and his face is purple,” he said.

Bill Bishop with his dog Winston.

An emergency supervisor at the scene said that Alexander thought that “the dog just happened to freak out and get him wrapped up in it,” according to court documents. Bill died three days later. 

The “dog killed my dad” defense is weak, experts say. The 9th Street Journal spoke with four forensics experts who all agreed it was unlikely Winston could have killed Bill. The injuries described in the autopsy report were not consistent with a dog essentially strangling Bill with a leash, they said. 

“It looks like someone took the dog leash and then came up from behind him, wrapped it around one time and strangled him,” said Kendall Von Crowns, deputy chief medical examiner with the Travis County (Texas) Medical Examiner’s office.

Medical examiner says homicide;  family says heart attack

The state medical examiner determined Bill’s death was a homicide caused by strangulation with a “ligature,” or a cord-like object. 

This conclusion was based upon a mark on Bill’s neck that signaled strangulation, cartilage fractures in his neck, and hemorrhages. 

Bill also had an enlarged heart and an 80 percent blockage in his heart’s left main coronary artery and a second left coronary artery, the report found. The report added that Bill had a history of depression, a recent divorce, and prostate cancer, in addition to an injury to his right arm in 2012 that rendered it “largely functionless.”

The Bishop family hired a pathologist, Dr. Jonathan Privette, who studied the autopsy report and argued that the medical examiner should have ruled the cause of death “undetermined” instead of a homicide. 

Privette said that blockages higher than 75 percent can lead to “sudden heart ‘events’ and death.”

That supports the family’s previous statements. An attorney for Alexander and his brother in the estate matters told the Durham Herald-Sun last year that the family thinks a heart attack killed Bill. 

“His physicians told the family that Bill had suffered a heart attack and never told them otherwise,” Idol said. “We believe this was the actual cause of his death.”

And shortly after Bill’s death, Sharon Bishop told the Tampa Bay Times that Bill had suffered a heart attack. 

Experts: Unlikely Bill died from a heart attack, blockages insignificant

Experts agreed that the blockage was enough to cause cardiac events, but that didn’t mean the cause of death was likely a heart attack. 

Jeffrey Springer, a Louisville forensic pathologist, and Kendall Von Crowns, deputy chief medical examiner with the Travis County (Texas) medical examiner’s office, agreed that his coronary arteries were blocked enough to cause some sort of cardiac event. All four experts said Bill had heart disease. 

But the evidence in the autopsy didn’t indicate that a heart attack caused Bill’s death. 

“He’s got coronary artery disease, as probably everyone in (the future jury will have) coronary artery disease. (Yet) the blood is still flowing to the heart. That’s normal,” said Bill Smock, police surgeon for the Louisville Metro Police Department who is on the staff of the Training Institute for Strangulation Prevention in San Diego. 

“There’s a lot of people walking around with 80, 90, or even close to 100 percent blockage of it. When it gets blocked, a heart attack is when blood doesn’t get to an area of the heart. At some point, if you live long enough, it’ll probably get completely blocked. But it has nothing to do with why he is dead. There’s no evidence that this is a cardiac event. Zero.”

Springer said that Bill could have had a heart attack during to the strangulation, but the cause of death still would have been strangulation. 

“When a man is found dead (in the basement chair) with a leash wrapped around his neck and has the autopsy findings Mr. Bishop had, he did not simply suffer a heart attack,” Springer said. 

“He still has ligature marks around his neck. Those wouldn’t be caused by a heart attack,” said Katherine Maloney, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner for the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office in New York. 

All four experts pointed to a lack of an “acute thrombus” or infarction in Bill’s arteries, meaning there was no blood clot blocking a vein. That is a tell-tale sign of a heart attack, they said. 

Evidence of heart attack can’t be seen unless the victim survives for more than 24 hours after suffering the attack, Crowns said. But Bill survived longer than that, assuming the cardiac event happened on the day Alexander said he found Bill unresponsive. 

Maloney suggested that the family may be using the term “heart attack” loosely to make it more understandable. She suggested they may be referring to a fatal cardiac arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat that could be a complication from his heart disease. 

But even in this case, it would be unlikely that killed him, Maloney said. In the case of fatal cardiac arrhythmia, people aren’t usually found sitting comfortably in a chair. In these cases, the victim’s heart stops beating suddenly, leading them to “hit the floor” wherever they are standing, she said. 

And the evidence of strangulation and where Alexander said he found Bill don’t match that theory. 

“If he’s sitting in the chair with a dog leash, how does the leash get up in the air and around his neck? The dog jumps up and wraps the leash around his neck?,” Maloney said. “The leash would have to defy gravity to get up around his neck.”

Maloney was also suspicious of the timing. Once a strangulation or arrhythmia victim loses oxygen to the brain, they have six minutes (10 maximum) before they die. 

With that narrow window, she said it was more likely that Alexander was there when it happened and then called 911. Otherwise, Bill wouldn’t have been able to survive for three days on the ventilator; he would have died at the scene. 

“So coincidentally, as either the dog was strangling him or he was having a heart attack, within 10 minutes of that happening, his son finds him? That’s pretty good timing,” Maloney said. “His spidey senses must have gone off.”

The life cycle of a sexual assault evidence kit

It starts when the emergency room door opens.

A victim walks in. She may have been sexually assaulted an hour ago or a day ago, but now, she’s decided to see a doctor. She might walk in with a friend or a parent, or she might sit alone and wait for the sexual assault nurse examiner to arrive.

“I just introduce myself at the beginning,” says Molly Chadbourne, a former sexual assault nurse examiner in Durham who currently trains other nurses. “I explain who I am and why I’m there to talk with them. Then, I ask them what they want. Do they want a kit?”

This is where a sexual assault kit begins. Its life cycle may last months, or even years.

The nurse ushers the victim into a small hospital room where they have privacy. Chadbourne likes to start with the easier questions: “What’s your medical history? What types of medicine do you take?” Then, she’ll ask the harder question. “Can you tell me what happened to you?”

The nurse listens, letting the victim take breaks and reminding her that it’s okay to tell her story imperfectly.

“We know that some people aren’t going to remember everything right away, and they might not remember it linearly,” Chadbourne says. “We have to give people permission to start talking about whatever they can, even if it’s not at the beginning.”

Then, the nurse starts to assemble the kit, a small white cardboard box with “Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit” printed on the front. 

The nurse starts collecting “known” samples, or the victim’s DNA. She’ll gently swab around the victim’s cheeks, gums, and lips. She’ll ask the victim to take off her underwear and seal it in a bag labeled “Underpants”. She’ll pluck exactly 50 hairs out of the victim’s head and then comb through her pubic hair, securing any hairs that fall off into a small envelope. 

Then the nurse collects “unknown” samples, which could include the assailant’s DNA. The nurse will swab any place on the body where the victim says she was assaulted. “It’s anywhere that was licked, bit, or touched by the assailant,” Chadbourne says.

She says “anything that’s on their body might be relevant”. Victims and nurses alike understand that the victim’s body is a crime scene.

The nurse takes photos of the woman, documenting any cuts, scrapes, or bruises. “I offer to let people look at the pictures,” Chadbourne says. “I try to give them as much control over the process as possible.” At any point, she notes, a victim can stop the kit collection.

After two hours, the nurse has packed away dozens of cotton swabs, photographs of injuries, and envelopes of hair into the sexual assault kit. She closes the lid of the white cardboard box and places it in storage, where the kit waits for law enforcement to come pick it up the next morning.

***

When the kit arrives at the police department, an officer will take a first look. That officer might notice if the kit is connected to a consent case, a case in which the victim and the perpetrator both agree that they had sex, but disagree on whether it was consensual. Three years ago, a consent kit would get put back on the evidence shelves at the police department instead of getting tested. It could stay there for over 30 years.

“When I was seeing patients, I couldn’t say to them, ‘Your kit will never get tested, because you know the person that assaulted you,’” Chadbourne says. “Doing this really invasive process and knowing in the back of your mind that this kit will probably never be tested… it’s a really hard pill to swallow.”

But today, with the statewide push to send all kits to the State Crime Lab, that kit won’t sit on an evidence shelf if it doesn’t meet testing requirements. Instead, an officer will log it into the North Carolina State Crime Lab’s database. A technician at the lab will accept the kit, and the officer will drive it to Raleigh, where the State Crime Lab is located.

“We place the kit into a vault until it’s time to be worked,” says Jody West, forensic sciences manager at the State Crime Lab. “Then we open it up, and start with inventory.”

Every sexual assault kit is a little different “It’s a box, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all box,” according to Chadbourne and the State Crime Lab takes note of every swab, photo, and hair inside.

A lab technician first takes a tiny portion of the swab and uses a chemical to tease out the DNA from its cotton. “It’s like cracking open an egg and removing the yolk,” West explains.

Lab technicians then use a machine to separate the yolk — human DNA — from any other type of genetic material. In sexual assault cases, they’re usually looking for male DNA. “This is the decision point,” West says. “If we determine there’s not enough male DNA, we’ll stop.”

If the kit moves ahead, it goes through amplification, or copying the yolk. The assailant’s DNA fragments are heated and cycled through a hefty gray machine — in just thirty cycles, a billion copies of that DNA are made.

The last step is electrophoresis, or separating the yolk. Analysts use an electric field to detach different fragments of DNA. The result is a complete DNA profile. “It looks a lot like a heartbeat,” West says.

After hours in the emergency room, days with law enforcement and up to five weeks at the lab, this is what a completed sexual assault kit looks like: A series of peaks on a computer screen.

Those peaks the DNA profile of the assailant will be entered into a database of millions of offenders across the country. A computer will scan each offender’s profile, checking for a perfect match. If the all of the peaks line up, the computer spits out a name. Then, it’s up to the police to investigate the sexual assault.

That is the life cycle of one sexual assault kit. To clear the backlog of 15,160, North Carolina has thousands more to go.

“Most people, if they’ve ever heard of a rape kit before, it’s from watching Law and Order SVU,” Chadbourne says. “They think it gets solved in 60 minutes. The truth is, it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.”

A sexual assault evidence kit. Photo provided by Molly Chadbourne

Resources for survivors:

Durham Crisis Response Center

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: What is a sexual assault forensic exam?

North Carolina Sexual Assault Kit Tracking 

North Carolina Office for Victims of Crime: Crime compensation