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Posts published in “Courthouse Project”

Durham man sues gas company for bathroom explosion

Two years ago, Anthony Terry walked into the bathroom of his Durham rental house and flipped on the light switch. The room exploded. 

“Thirty-two percent of his body suffered second and third degree burns. Face, forehead, eyelids, neck, chest, back, both arms, hands, both legs,” said his attorney Michael Malone. “That doesn’t leave much else.”

Malone filed a lawsuit that claimed a natural gas leak at the home on Colfax Street caused the explosion. The lawsuit said the gas provider and landlord had both been negligent.

A neighbor noticed the odor of gas and contacted the Public Service Company of North Carolina, the natural gas provider for the residence, Malone said. The gas company visited the area to inspect but didn’t turn off the gas.

Then, the bathroom exploded. 

Malone said there was significant structural damage around the bathroom and the roof was blown out. 

According to the lawsuit, PSNC had responsibility to keep gas from escaping into the home and properly repair leaky gas lines. But PSNC responded that the company wasn’t to blame.

“(Terry) failed to take reasonable care to avoid his alleged injuries, and therefore was contributorily negligent,” PSNC wrote in a court filing. 

Terry, 53, contends that his landlord William Lucas was negligent, too. He had a duty to ensure “rental premises are maintained in a fit and habitable condition,” the lawsuit said. But the landlord’s attorney Robert Levin responded that Lucas didn’t know there was any problem with the home. 

“He was never notified about anything,” Levin said.

After the explosion, Terry was a patient in the burn unit at UNC for four and a half months. 

“He has severe skin discoloration from where he was burned,” Malone said. “He can’t really go outside. He lays in bed a lot and tried to keep off his feet.”

Now, Terry is asking for damages in excess of $25,000. The case is scheduled to go to trial on Sept. 28, 2020.

A courthouse moment: ‘Nobody takes this court seriously. Nobody.’

On Feb. 23, Vi Ong was charged with felony larceny. He was ordered to pay $149 in restitution to Target and complete community service.

He’s also on the hook for an additional $200 of “court costs”: $147.50 for the “general court of justice” fee, $12 for the facilities fee, $2 for the DNA fee, and several others. Five dollars will go to an ambiguous “service” fee.

Twenty dollars of his court costs — 10% — go toward just setting up an installment plan for his payments.

Once he makes those payments and completes community service, his case can be dismissed.

Now, Ong is in court for a compliance hearing. Judge Pat Evans will be checking on his progress.

Ong tells the court he recently faced an unexpected expense; his car broke down, forcing him to pay for repairs. He asks Judge Pat Evans for an extension on his court payments. 

Already that day, Judge Evans had postponed hearings and, in one case, dismissed a judgement entirely. When younger defendants say they’ll represent themselves, she provides a motherly nudge and recommends that they apply for court-appointed counsel.

But she doesn’t have that kind of patience for Ong. 

When Judge Evans flips over the envelope with Ong’s file, she makes no effort to put on a poker face — her eyes widen when she realizes his case has been carried over since February.

She orders him to pay the entire amount — all $249 — by the end of the day.

“Nobody takes this court seriously,” she says. “Nobody.”

The courtroom is silent, save the low mutter of “She’s not playing” from someone in the back. 

Ong heads out of the courtroom, down four floors to the cashier’s office, where’s he’s expected to make a payment that he cannot afford.

“I’m a little bit confused,” he says, “because the last time, the judge told me that I have up to a year to do the community service and to pay.”

Just that morning, Ong says, the clerk reassured him that he would qualify for an extension and that he shouldn’t worry about having to pay yet.

Ong says that he doesn’t know if Judge Evans even remembers his case or what she told him at his previous hearing. He uses a credit card but says he doesn’t know how he’s going to be able to find the money this month to pay down the balance.

“So now,” he says, “I have to scramble to make up the difference.”

Two DWI defendants walk into a courtroom: one leaves free, the other goes to prison

Two defendants pleaded guilty to DWI charges before Judge Amanda Maris. One walked out of the courtroom, and the other went to prison after Judge Maris denied his appeal for probation.

***

Judge Amanda Maris greets each defendant at the stand for Wednesday morning traffic court. She is generous with motions to delay hearings or requests to waive court and jail fees. She resolves cases quickly, often handling them within minutes of their introduction, and she expects attorneys to keep up the pace.

On Sept. 18, her packed morning takes two pauses — once to punish, and once to mourn.

Joshua Meckes shuffles to the podium as he prepares to plead guilty to Driving While Impaired. Judge Maris asks if he understands that by pleading, he is admitting guilt. He mutters, “Yes.”

A four-car crash. Open containers of alcohol and marijuana found in the car. Property damage totaling several thousand dollars. A Blood Alcohol Content level twice the legal limit. Meckes pleads guilty to the impaired driving that caused this collision. 

“You’re lucky no one was killed, sir,” Judge Maris says. “You’re responsible for affecting three other lives that night.”

Meckes’s attorney argues that the offense should be considered a Level 5 DWI conviction, the lowest sentencing level for that crime. He notes that Meckes cooperated with police, sought out treatment for substance abuse, and, aside from a speeding offense in 2011, had a mostly safe driving record.

Judge Maris chastises Meckes’s attorney for suggesting a Level 5 DWI conviction despite the presence of aggravating factors, such as the open containers and marijuana.

“The presence of open containers and marijuana in your vehicle is not a minor fact for this court,” she says. “It indicates a flagrant violation of the law.”

A circumstance as egregious as this, she says, shouldn’t be portrayed to the court as a minor offense, even if the defendant has taken steps to deal with substance abuse issues.

“Someone could have died that night,” she says. “We’re lucky they didn’t.”

As Meckes continues to look down at the ground, he lets his attorney field questions from Judge Maris, who will now decide his fate.

Judge Maris hands down a 120-day suspended sentence for Meckes, requiring 48 hours of community service, three months of weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and a monitoring device installed in his car. She adds on six months of supervised probation, despite the defendant’s request for unsupervised probation.

“It is not going to be unsupervised probation,” Judge Maris says. “This court does not have adequate assurance that Mr. Meckes is doing what he needs to, to provide for his own safety and that of Durham.”

“It’s just a lot of, a lot of stuff that I have to do,” Meckes says after his hearing. “It’s not worth making that mistake.”

***

About an hour later, Evan Hymes steps toward the podium, also ready to plead guilty to a DWI charge. He clearly says, “Yes, ma’am” when asked if he understands that he is admitting guilt.

Hymes, after a few too many drinks, drove his car into a ditch. His Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) reached 0.17, more than twice the legal limit.

He immediately admitted guilt, calling 911 himself to get towing assistance and cooperating with police officers once they arrived.

Hymes and his attorney make no excuses for his conduct that night, admitting that since he has two prior DWI convictions, this charge is a Level 1 DWI offense. 

While the Level 1 charge will require up to three years in jail, Hymes’ attorney is seeking probation under the condition that Hymes has already taken steps to support his sobriety.

“I appreciate, Mr. Hymes, that you’ve completed this inpatient treatment. I appreciate that you’re in AA,” Judge Maris says. “It’s the type of thing that I like to see when people are facing DWIs, and I’d like to see it sooner than now.”

As part of the plea hearing, Hymes makes a statement about his struggle with substance abuse. He says he hopes his recovery process may spur an individual in the audience to act on their own substance abuse issues.

“My name is Evan Drey Hymes, and I am an alcoholic,” he says. “As most, as some of you know, I was not always this way.”

Hymes describes himself as a devoted son, driven student, and dedicated Division I NCAA basketball player at Siena College. Basketball was his outlet, he says, for any of the obstacles he faced — an escape from the struggles he faced in his childhood.

“Here’s the kicker,” he says, “How does a young, black, successful student athlete, college graduate become dependent on alcohol?”

The courtroom is silent, lost in the tragedy that befell young Evan Hymes after he walked off the basketball court.

Hymes describes six or seven years of alcohol abuse, years in his life when he didn’t know where to turn in times of strife. He speaks about his inpatient treatment as an opportunity to connect with his faith as a basis for his newfound sobriety.

“I gave everything over to my higher power,” he says. “I asked him for forgiveness for everything that I’ve done in my past.”

His parents are in the audience. His mother muffles her sobs. Judge Maris turns away from Hymes to address his parents directly.

“I understand the pain you must feel right now,” she says, “to have your son up here facing the time that he is facing.” 

Judge Maris explains to the audience that an aggravated Level 1 is the most serious sentencing level for a DWI charge. People who are convicted on that charge, she says, routinely go to prison for a maximum of three years.

 “At a certain point there’s accountability,” she says, “and it’s now.” 

Evan Hymes will spend twelve months behind bars, the minimum for this conviction.

“It doesn’t give me pleasure to send people to jail — it doesn’t,” Judge Maris says. “But that’s what I have to do today.”

While Meckes trudges out of the courtroom at the end of his hearing, Hymes’s takes his place at the bench to Judge Maris’s right. He’ll sit on that bench until he can be transferred to prison to begin serving his 12-month sentence.

When the bailiff brings Hymes’s personal items to his parents in the audience, they ask if they can have one more chance to speak to their son. They are denied.

After a moment of looking at the parents, the bailiff goes back to Hymes and hands him a pad of Post-Its and a pen, a final opportunity to convey something to his parents.

New York men charged in thefts from four Home Depot stores

Two New York men were charged with attempted larceny from four Home Depot stores after more than $20,000 in merchandise was found in their minivan outside a store in Durham, according to a search warrant and court records.

On Sept. 27, Gaetan Dubosquet was seen with another suspect at the Home Depot on Mt. Moriah Road in Durham. As they perused the store, they picked up $8,235 worth of electrical equipment and other products, placed it in a garbage can and then tried to flee.

Dubosquet was caught by a police officer, but the second suspect got away, according to a search warrant filed by the Durham Police Department.

A 2018 Dodge Caravan in the store’s parking lot then apparently became the focus of the investigation.

A Home Depot employee told police it was the same vehicle used in four other larcenies from Home Depot stores in Garner, Raleigh, Cary, and Fuquay-Varina.

In those thefts, the suspects fled the stores with similar stolen electrical equipment, got into the same Dodge Caravan and drove away, according to the warrant.

The warrant said that a police officer could see the same GFCI Interrupter boxes in the minivan that the suspects attempted to steal. He also saw five black trash bags that appeared full.

After the warrant was approved, Bonfiglio seized $240, a wallet containing assorted cards and a New York ID for Dubosquet, a red iPhone, an E-Z Pass, a New York ID for Joshua Mitchell, a 50-gallon garbage can, and the stolen property belonging to Home Depot.

Dubosquet and Joshua Mitchell have been charged with attempted larceny, conspiracy to commit felony larceny, and resisting a public officer. Mitchell has also been charged with misdemeanor breaking and entering and possessing stolen goods and property.

Dubosquet is expected in court on Oct. 21, and Mitchell is expected on Nov. 14.

The spaces we occupy: Deberry urges Duke students to reflect on race and privilege

At a panel on public-private community partnerships, District Attorney Satana Deberry stood before a lecture hall of Duke students and introduced them to Durham — the real Durham.

“I’m going to take you on a little journey where we will talk about the challenge of our environment…where we live, and who gets to live here with us,” Deberry said.

The event was organized by Duke students from the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Nicholas School of the Environment. Its purpose was to bring together members of the community — public servants, activists, and academics — to discuss cross-sector methods for building a more equitable and sustainable Durham.

But rather than discussing the mechanics of public-private partnerships in her speech, Deberry decided to lay a foundation for the conversation by talking about race and privilege. She made it personal by encouraging Duke students — as Durham residents — to think deeply about the physical spaces they occupy in the community.

Deberry first described the Durham most Duke students know: An up-and-coming city filled with “renovated bungalows, walkable streets, and gleaming new apartments with those saltwater pools.” But she emphasized that those spaces are only for people who can afford an average rent of $1200 a month.

“You live in a space where a bank is willing to give you 700-times the loan that it once provided people who lived in that community just 10 years ago,” she said.

She explained that today’s downtown Durham has transformed drastically, not only in cost of living, but also demographically. When she went to Duke Law School in 1991, people viewed the city as rough and dangerous. In those days, she said, “if you came here to go to college at Duke, you were advised to never leave the confines of the university.”

But in the past decade, as rent prices skyrocketed and squeezed out minority residents, Duke students have been more willing to venture off campus. The Bull City has become a destination; people fly in from all over the world to watch films at Full Frame and hear music at DPAC.

“Now, you live in a physical space that sees you and the space you occupy as cool.” Deberry said. “It turns out that Durham was only a problem when black and brown bodies occupied those spaces.”

She paused for a moment to let that sink in.

Then, Deberry reminded her audience that even though she stood before them now as the district attorney, Durham’s image only changed when people who looked like her were driven out of downtown.

“I am one of those people. I’m black. I’m a woman,” she said. “Had I been sitting in a different space today, you may have understood me to be someone else. I’m not here to serve your food.”

As a black woman from the South, Deberry understands how seeing the word “negro” written on her birth certificate can impact the psyche. She understands what it was like to watch her childhood friends go through the criminal justice system and what it is like to be the great-grandchild of people born into slavery.

“What does it mean for someone who looks like me, with my history, to be D.A. in this community?” she asked. “What does it mean in a place where so many people who look like me are subjected to the vagaries of the criminal justice system?”

By sharing Durham’s history, Deberry helped her audience recognize the racial biases that underpin American institutions, especially criminal justice. Deberry saw that understanding as an essential precursor to any conversation about equity and sustainability.

“When I speak at Duke, I hope that some student hears it and uses it going forward,” Deberry said while reflecting on her speech. “I hope they hear me and recognize their privilege, especially in this community.”

A courthouse moment: ‘You have the rope’

“Hey! Where are you going?” The court bailiff throws his arm in front of Jaquomie Samuel, stopping him from reaching the courtroom’s most sacrosanct territory: the judge’s dias.

District Court Judge Brian C. Wilks, today’s occupant of that dias, waves the bailiff off. “No, no. I called him up here,” Wilks says. 

Judge Wilks – a genial, bespectacled man – beckons Samuel towards him. Samuel shuffles up to the judge’s dias alongside his attorney, tugging up a pair of dark jeans. 

I’ve been sitting in the courtroom for almost two hours when Samuel is called up to the dias. The steady rhythm of District Court is almost never broken – an attorney calls a name, a defendant walks to the middle of the room, an attorney motions for a continuance or a stay or something of the sort, the judge agrees. It’s all painfully predictable – until Judge Wilks calls up Samuel.

When Samuel arrives at the judge’s dias, the two men begin whispering like old friends. Judge Wilks – one hand covering his microphone – nods and holds Samuel’s gaze while he leans in, explaining something. The courtroom is quiet. Everyone – defendant, attorney, and clerk alike – is watching the unlikely duo. One so powerful, one so vulnerable.

Then, as if the moment in confidence never happened, Judge Wilks waves Samuel away. He grants his motion and calls up the next defendant in line. The routine of district court resumes.

Outside the courtroom, Jaquomie Samuel sits on a bench next to his girlfriend.

“Why did Judge Wilks call you up there?” I ask him. “I don’t see that happen very much.”

“I know,” Samuel says, smiling tightly. “But he was the one who gave me a second chance.”

“He was a judge in juvenile back when I got a charge,” he continues. “I don’t even remember what it was for, but I was 15, and I was scared. He gave me another chance. Most judges don’t care, but he cares.”

For Judge Wilks, caring is one of his judicial responsibilities. “It’s part of my job to try to make sure people don’t come back to see us in court,” Wilks says after the proceedings. “If I have a chance to do that, I will.” The judge would not comment on the specifics of his relationship with Samuel. 

But Samuel remembers what Judge Wilks said to him years ago in juvenile court. 

“Back then, he said, ‘you have the rope to hang yourself,’” Samuel recalls. “And he said, ‘if I see you back here in court, you hung yourself.’”

A courthouse moment: ‘Nothing out of the ordinary’

At the witness stand, Andrea Arnold hesitated as she figured out which hand to place on the Bible and which to raise. Wearing a cheetah print blouse and large, gold hoop earrings, she grimaced in a way that conveyed both frustration and pain. 

Arnold was in court to testify about the evening she spent with her longtime friend Reginald Johnson on July 30, 2018. 

“I call him Crabs,” Arnold said. “That’s what they call him. I’m not used to Reggie, Reginald. I’ve known him since I was 8 years old.”

They spent time together every week, but that would be their last. The next morning, Johnson was found shot dead on the porch of his grandma’s home. Arnold said she was confused that he died after such a normal day. 

“He come, we chill, we smoke. We talked, laughed, watch MTV Wild and Up,” she said. 

“Did Reggie have some drinks?” prosecutor Alyson Grine asked. 

“That’s what he do. He likes to drink. He drinks Corona,” Arnold replied.

Arnold’s face turned red, and she tilted her head toward her shoulder. With each sentence she spoke, her voice became more distorted as if there was a growing lump in her throat. 

“Can I ask you to speak louder?” Judge James Hardin asked Arnold.

Arnold raised her volume a notch as she recounted driving “Crabs” to Waffle House and then to the Joy Mart on North Roxboro Street on the way back to his grandma’s house. Grine, the prosecutor, asked if this was ordinary. Arnold gave a long “mhmmm,” nodding her head.

“This is something we did all of the time,” she said. “The same mood, he was just drunk. He was laughing, joking. Nothing out of the ordinary happening.”

Grine stood up and carried a Durham map over to Arnold. It had the Waffle House, the Joy Mart, Arnold’s home, and the crime scene. Grine asked if Arnold could identify her house. 

“It’s right there where it says Andrea Arnold home,” she said, her exasperated tone noting the obviousness of the question. 

Then, Grine asked Arnold to trace her route back to Johnson’s grandma’s house. The first time Arnold testified, she hadn’t mentioned that Johnson went into the Joy Mart on the way back. 

“It was a shock to me that he was gone, so I wasn’t really thinking,” she said.

Then she looked down, in a contemplative way. She swayed back and forth and recalled how Johnson had spoken with a man at the Joy Mart.

“Everywhere we go, Crabs knew somebody,” she said. 

She dropped him off at the house. He got out of the car and tripped a bit. “‘I’m good, I’m alright’,” Arnold remembered him saying. Then she drove off.

Arnold breathed slowly and closed her eyes. 

“(His death) was hurtful and unexpected,” she said. 

A courthouse moment: ‘It’s filled with a lot of stuff I ain’t do’

Frederick McQuaig put his future on the line to shave a little over three years from his time in prison. 

In Courtroom 7C of Durham County Superior Court on Monday, Sept. 9, McQuaig was intent on trimming the state’s offer of 20 years and 11 months of imprisonment. His counteroffer was 17 years and 6 months.

He sat in a mostly empty courtroom next to his attorney Johanna Jennings from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a North Carolina law firm that represent inmates on death row. Although the judge and attorneys were discussing how long he’d be locked up, he didn’t show any emotion. 

In August, McQuaig had been arraigned on so many crimes it was hard to remember them all. The prosecutor, Ray Griffis, stumbled as he recited each case’s file number to the judge: robbery with second-degree kidnapping, 19 CRS 228; assault with a deadly weapon, 19 CRS 533; possession of a stolen motor vehicle, 18 CRS 57904 …

And a big one: a pending first-degree murder charge, though it hasn’t been arraigned yet. 

In an email on Aug. 20, the state had offered to wrap all of those charges into one global second-degree murder plea. The state would give McQuaig the least prison time allowed for that charge—almost 21 years. The offer was still available. 

Judge Michael O’Foghludha talked through the different offers, charges, and sentences, as if he was trying to keep them straight. 

“If the state’s offer was rejected, Mr. McQuaig would be going to trial in December on cases which carry the possibility of life imprisonment without parole. And then he would be waiting on a first-degree murder case, which carries the requirement of life without parole if convicted,” the judge said.

But McQuaig didn’t take the deal. The prison time difference wasn’t immense—but it was enough to matter to him.

“Mr. McQuaig and I had a long conversation about this,” Jennings said. “Mr. McQuaig continues to reject the state’s offer.”

“Okay,” Judge O’Foghludha said under his breath. 

Looking into McQuaig’s eyes, Judge O’Foghludha explained that the state’s plea wasn’t too different from McQuaig’s counteroffer. 

“(He’d have) the opportunity to essentially wrap everything up and begin serving a sentence that’s really only three years different from what would be acceptable to you,” Judge O’Foghludha said. “You understand that?”

“I understand, I understand,” McQuaig replied. “But it’s filled with a lot of stuff I ain’t do.”

“Alright, alright,” Judge O’Foghludha said.

Prosecutor Griffis said McQuaig had until Monday, Sept. 16 to accept the state’s offer.

But the deadline came and went. Now, he’ll go to trial for first-degree murder. If he’s convicted: A required life sentence without parole.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly gave a date for the murder trial of Frederick McQuaig. The story has been updated to reflect that the date has not been set.

A courthouse moment: ‘I do recognize this might be an inconvenience to you’

The bailiff rolled Sterling Whitted into Courtroom 7D in a wheelchair Monday morning. He looked around with wide eyes through his thick, plastic glasses. His black dress shirt, a size 40, was buttoned tightly.

“I think you need a size 44,” his sister Kecelliea Leathers said, smiling.

The start of Whitted’s murder trial became a family reunion for the Durham man and his sisters—the bailiff had to ask the family not to whisper while court was in session. 

But for approximately 60 potential jurors in the room, Monday seemed like a nuisance.

Whitted was charged with murder after the body of 43-year-old Reginald Johnson was found on July 31 at a Durham home where Johnson’s grandmother lived. 

Monday marked the start of jury selection for what Judge James Hardin said would likely be a two-week trial. None of the potential jurors seemed too excited about that. 

The would-be jurors filed into court silently and with straight faces. Most didn’t seem dressed for court. One man wore blue hospital scrubs. A woman came in a red Adidas shirt, false eyelashes, and white sneakers. Another was in gray sweatpants.

Judge Hardin ignored the heavy aura of boredom and annoyance and gave the group a warm welcome.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I’m going to introduce myself to you first. My name is Judge Hardin,” he said.

He introduced the bailiff, the court reporter, the attorneys, and the clerks, and mentioned the courthouse amenities. Meanwhile, sisters Felecia and Kecelliea Leathers slipped in and out of the courtroom, whispering about topics ranging from the proceedings to Whitted’s shoes. Kecelliea made expressive gestures and sighed as the judge spoke. 

Then, Judge Hardin addressed the thick air of dread in the room.

“There are likely other places you’d like to be and need to be,” he said. “I do recognize this might be an inconvenience to you.”

But he wasn’t going to let the jurors off easy. He said he’d only consider letting them off for a “significant and overwhelming hardship.” And, even at that, he’d probably defer their service rather than dismiss them. 

That didn’t deter some jurors from offering a range of excuses.

“I provide transportation to my kids, and one of my kids is in school everyday. My wife works and she picks them up … They go to Excelsior and ages are 7 and 9,” Charles Ross said. 

‘“Are you telling me that her employer won’t give her a little … ,” Judge Hardin paused to search for a word. “Latitude?”

Ross supposed his wife could ask, and Judge Hardin denied his request. Then Michael White took a whack at dismissal. 

“I’m not hearing well,” White said. “I’ve lost most of my hearing. I have a doctor’s letter stating that. I have a very difficult time comprehending conversation.”

Judge Hardin asked if he wore hearing aids. 

Not yet, but White has an appointment set for evaluation. Even then, White doesn’t know if he’ll purchase the aids.

“They are $3,600 … It’s a monetary issue,” White said. 

Judge Hardin granted him a 90-day deferral.

A courthouse moment: ‘Because it’s the right thing to do’

Courtroom 4D ran a bit like a zoo.

The electric candy-pop of someone’s phone accented the hum of whispers, laughs, and shuffling that was so regular it almost became white noise. There was an anxious itch in the air, each person in a hurry to leave the wood benches as soon as they possibly could. Meanwhile, Judge Doretta Walker bantered with courtroom latecomers, and no one seemed to mind one another.

A middle-aged man, wearing an oversized tweed coat over a grey pair of basketball shorts, stood before the judge ready to present himself in court.

“Go outside and tuck in your shirt, Mr. Williams,” Judge Walker sighed. “I should not see red underwear.”

Her voice was sharp, with the frustration of a parent and the sass of someone who had seen it all before.

On to the next case. “Shantal Parham,” the judge called out.

Parham, a 31-year-old with straight, black hair and a neat pink cardigan, walked up to the witness box to testify at Durham County District Court. She claimed the defendant, Jessica Smith, assaulted and threatened her.

Parham had filed for a restraining order and lodged a complaint with the magistrate months before the trial. Today, she wanted to find a resolution.

Parham spoke to the court firmly and with resolve. She recounted the day of the incident, April 4, which began with a visit to her apartment’s leasing office. After noticing that her rent was higher than usual, she sat down with the leasing agent, Jacqueline Washington, to sort out the bill.

This conversation caught the attention of Smith, the assistant property manager.

Tensions quickly escalated as Parham and Smith disputed the rent prices. Parham told the court that Smith blew up, shouted profanities at Parham, and began to get aggressive. Parham quickly called the police, who then arrived and filed an incident report.

Parham described walking to her mailbox with her children later that day, when Smith ran up to her.

“I ought to whoop your ass!” Smith said. Parham was taken aback.

Smith also suggested that as the property manager, she had access to all the apartments in the complex. “She said she’d watch my apartment, have someone stand in my apartment to watch me,” Parham recounted. “Mrs. Smith spat in my face.”

A collective gasp rose from the back of the courtroom. “Oh my god, that’s crazy!” The once apathetic crowd listened attentively to Parham’s story.

Smith, Parham claimed from the witness box, attacked her in front of her kids. That touched a nerve. She wanted the court to set things right.

“The state calls Jacqueline Washington.” The prosecutor turned his attention to the next witness.

Washington, the leasing agent, was an older woman with graying hair and a cool-toned jacket. She gave her version of the story, backing up Parham’s allegations. Her voice was crisp and dignified, full of the conviction that her truth meant something here.

“The treatment she received was unfair,” Washington said of Parham. “Mrs. Smith was not following the proper procedure.”

“I didn’t like the way the residents were treated,” Washington said. She had since quit her job at Falls Pointe Apartments. This incident with Smith played a large role in that decision.

“Why are you testifying today?” the defense attorney asked Washington.

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Washington’s words rang in the courthouse, which now stood silent.

The state found Smith guilty on two counts of misdemeanor assault. She would have to attend an anger management class and complete community service.

During the recess, Parham and Washington walked into the hallway together. They greeted each other with a warm hug.