“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.’”
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.
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.
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.
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.
In a stunning blow to prosecutors, a Durham judge ruled Monday that much of the evidence in the Alexander Bishop case should be tossed out because of reckless or untruthful work by the lead investigator.
After hearing three days of testimony from the investigator and other Durham police officers, Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. agreed to suppress evidence from search warrants that had provided much of the case against Bishop, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing his father William Bishop with a dog leash.
“The investigator either was untruthful or showed a reckless disregard for the truth,” Hudson said. “As a result of that, the court has to act.”
Monday was a long day for Tony Huelsman, the lead investigator.
Accused of using false information to get search warrants, he often stuttered when trying to explain the decisions he made. Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, grilled him for hours, asking pointed questions with a smile.
It’s not clear how much evidence will be left in the wake of Hudson’s ruling. The defense will now submit a filing to argue what evidence should remain that wasn’t obtained from improper search warrants.
In Sharp’s closing statement, she argued that once the tainted evidence is removed from the case, a few simple facts remain: William Bishop was found unresponsive in a chair, and that Alexander Bishop said he found him with the leash wrapped around his neck.
Another piece of evidence that will be left, she argued: Alexander Bishop told an EMS supervisor that his father had been emotionally abusive, had just gotten divorced and was having issues with his new girlfriend.
The case isn’t complicated, Sharp said. “When you remove those material misstatements and omissions, it is simply a death that is tragic, but not suspicious,” she said.
Bishop was charged with killing his father by wrapping a dog leash around his neck in April 2018. Internet search records obtained from his phone indicate he looked up how to manage the financial assets of a dead family member.
As she did in court last week, Sharp grilled Huelsman over a mistake he admitted in the search warrant process. Huelsman had filed search warrants based on “missing” gold bars, which suggested that Bishop could have killed his father in an attempt to claim his inheritance.
The problem? Much of the gold was not in fact missing.
A purchase order showed that William Bishop had sold the $462,773 of gold. Huelsman, who testified that dates are important to him, had failed to notice the sale was in August 2016, almost two years before William Bishop died.
“You didn’t find the date relevant at the time?” Sharp said.
“That’s correct,” Huelsman responded.
In her closing remarks, Sharp criticized Huelsman’s error.
“It’s unreasonable and untrue that Investigator Huelsman did not know exactly what it was when he saw it,” she said.
Huelsman said he didn’t intentionally mislead magistrates or judges in his search warrants.
In the search warrant, Huelsman had considered Alexander Bishop’s internet history “suspicious.” But there was a key detail that Huelsman had erased in the search warrant: the date of those searches.
If they had come before his father’s death, they could have pointed to premeditation. But Sharp pointed out that Bishop searched gold conversion on April 29, 2018, eight days after his father had died.
“What’s suspicious about searching for it eight days after he died?” Sharp asked.
“What makes it suspicious is everything that happened before this,” Huelsman responded.
Beth Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, said in rebuttal that there were other reasons to be suspicious of Alexander Bishop.
“The fact that he’s contending his dog strangled his father is where the suspicion is for this case, your honor,” Hopkins Thomas said.
She also argued that the internet searches weren’t “totally reasonable” given the circumstances and called the defense’s motions to suppress evidence “antics over semantics.”
Sharp also challenged the credibility of William Bishop’s girlfriend Julie Seel. Sharp said Huelsman overlooked potential issues with the information she provided.
That included a tip about a small hypodermic needle and a clear glass bottle found in Alexander Bishop’s bedroom. Investigators seized them when Seel made them “relevant,” telling Huelsman that Alexander Bishop was an advanced chemistry student and she encouraged Huelsman to ask Bishop’s teachers about any missing chemicals. They turned out to be from a sand art Christmas gift Seel had given him.
Sharp also suggested Seel lied about having served in the Army Special Forces, saying the first woman to make it through the training did so in 2018. Seel told the 9th Street Journal that she served in the 12th Special Forces group from 1990 to 1994.
Sharp also asked Huelsman about a Rolex that Seel wore. She claimed William Bishop gave her, rather than having taken it from him.
“I don’t believe she took the watch to gain anything,” Huelsman said. “I believe she was wearing the watch to help her through a hard time.”
Sharp also asked Huelsman if he was aware of notes from William Bishop’s final therapy session saying that he believed “the relationship was ending or over.” Huelsman said he had received the notes but he didn’t remember that detail.
Alexander Bishop had a blank expression throughout most the hearing, staring forward and yawning frequently.
But after about three hours of cross-examination of Huelsman, he started crying while Sharp was asking questions about Seel and the syringe. Sharp put her arm around him and continued asking questions.
Monday’s ruling was a surprise because the previous ruling from Hudson, made last Thursday, favored the prosecutors. Hudson rejected Sharp’s argument that statements Alexander Bishop made at the scene couldn’t be used because officers didn’t read him his Miranda rights.
On Monday, Hudson also ruled on two other motions presented by the defense, one requesting return of electronic devices owned by Alexander Bishop and his mother Sharon Bishop and another requesting all relevant documents for discovery.
Hudson also set deadlines for documents to be turned over to Bishop’s attorneys and for police to return devices they had gotten from Bishop and his mother because of search warrants.
In photo above, Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, questioned Huelsman for hours over two days of hearings. Photo by Ben Leonard | The 9th Street Journal
On any given Wednesday in District Court, Judge Amanda Maris settles into her high-backed chair and begins to read names.
“Todd Burgess,” she calls out on this particular Wednesday, September 4. And then “Dinelle Allen.” And then others. When Judge Maris finishes her list, 12 people have shuffled to the front of the courtroom, facing her in a slipshod line. Most are young, black, and male.
One by one, Judge Maris calls out a name and begins reciting her script.
“You’ve been charged with…” she addresses each one, filling in the blank with “larceny” or “misdemeanor assault” or something similar.
“This is a serious offense,” the judge continues. “What would you like to do about a lawyer?”
“Court-appointed lawyer,” the first defendant mutters. “Court-appointed,” says the next. Eleven times, I hear “Court-appointed, your Honor.”
But when the last of the 12 stands alone in front of Judge Maris, she surprises everyone in the courtroom.
“I’ll represent myself, thank you,” the young woman says.
She is Davionna Mack, a slender 21-year-old with a pair of red streaks in her dark hair and chunky gold earrings hanging down to her neck.
Mack is charged with injury to real property, a first-degree misdemeanor. If she’s found guilty, she could spend up to four months in jail.
But representing herself is risky. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Judge Maris asks after hearing Mack’s decision, raising her eyebrows at the young woman. “That could be a problem if the victim comes to court.”
Mack knows that, and she isn’t contesting her guilt. “This girl I know came over to my car in the middle of the night and busted out my windows,” she tells me after her appearance. “So I went to her house and busted hers.”
But Mack also knows how the criminal justice system works. If she accepts a court-appointed lawyer and is found guilty, she’ll have to pay back all the money spent on her defense. That’s on top of the $173 in “General Court of Justice” fees she already owes to the court, just by appearing in front of Judge Maris.
So Mack will represent herself. If all goes well, she says, the woman whose windows she broke won’t show up to court. Then, her case will likely be dismissed. But if the woman does show up?
“I’d still rather represent and speak for myself than to have an attorney speak for me,” Mack says.
Back in the courtroom, Judge Maris questions Mack one more time. “You’re sure this is what you want to do?”
“I want to represent myself,” Mack repeats. Judge Maris shrugs and waves the young woman out of court, to await the date she’ll take to the well and represent herself.
“I’m nervous,” Mack admits. “I want to speak for myself. But, you know, this is my freedom on the line.”
By Ben Leonard, Erin Williams and Swathi Ramprasad
The second day of a hearing in the case of Alexander Bishop, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing his father with a dog leash, was a battle over search warrants.
Prosecutors and Bishop’s attorney sparred over the warrants and the evidence they provided, accusing each other of “fishing expeditions.”
Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, said some evidence should be suppressed because of misconduct by the lead investigator, Tony Huelsman.
But prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas said there was no proof Huelsman was intentionally misleading when he sought the warrants.
“The claims here are incredibly opaque and getting into semantics instead of getting into substantive material issues,” Hopkins Thomas said of Sharp’s arguments.
Late in the day, Sharp noted that Huelsman had executed about 22 search warrants and asked him to explain what criminal evidence he’d uncovered.
Hopkins Thomas was quick to object.
“Your honor, it’s a fishing expedition,” Hopkins Thomas said. “She is trying to get our lead investigator to lay out his entire testimony before the trial.”
As in the first day of the hearing, Sharp played videos from April 18, 2018, when officers were called to the Bishop home in exclusive Hope Valley. In one video, Alexander’s mother Sharon recounts calls with her son, noting that the first one had connection problems. Sharp raised doubts about the calls because of the connectivity problems, which Huelsman failed to mention in his search warrant. “Isn’t it true that you didn’t include anything about that because you were afraid that would discredit the statement that you were claiming Alexander made to his mother?” Sharpe asked.
“No,” Huelsman responded.
Sharp tried to poke holes in Huelsman’s account, suggesting that he withheld details to bolster his case. She said he conveniently ignored discrepancies about the location of the leash and how it was wrapped around William Bishop’s body.
She emphasized there were conflicting statements about the location of the leash on William Bishop’s arms. In Huelsman’s search warrant application, he included a statement from an anonymous friend of William Bishop who said Bishop had severe nerve damage and reduced mobility in his right arm. But she said Huelsman did not include body camera footage of Alexander telling officers the same detail, which would have bolstered his explanation that the dog caused the strangulation.
Sharp repeatedly challenged Huelsman’s contention that marks on William Bishop’s neck indicated he’d been strangled by Alexander. She said evidence suggested it was possible the marks were caused by the dog pulling the leash.
But Huelsman said, “I’m not sure a dog on a leash could do that damage.”
The search warrants and the evidence used to justify them were the focus of Thursday’s hearing.
One of Huelsman’s warrants cited “suspicious” web history including searches for “how to calculate the value of an estate, the value of the price of gold per ounce, and how to transfer bank accounts after death,” Sharp said in the motion. She said Huelsman purposely deleted a sentence that showed these searches were made after William Bishop, his father, died.
On the stand, Huelsman said he didn’t have a particular reason for deleting the sentence, saying it was common to make edits. Later in questioning, he said he probably got rid of one of the sentences because they “kind of say the same thing.”
“Investigator Huelsman has been picking and choosing what supports his suspicions while leaving out the investigative work he has done that has proven those things to be false,” Sharp said earlier.
Sharp called it “a fishing expedition. These are general warrants.”
Sitting beside Hopkins Thomas, Michael Wallace, head of the Homicide and Violent Crimes team for the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, argued Sharp was really the one with the rod and reel in trying to get the evidence dismissed. Her arguments were really the ones that were false, misleading and disregarding the truth, Wallace said.
“What we’re having right now is a fishing expedition,” Wallace said.
The lawyers also began discussing gold bars that had been listed as “missing” to justify search warrants. After obtaining Alexander Bishop’s cell phone search history that showed him apparently searching for the price of gold, Huelsman said investigators became interested in the location of the bars.
But in fact William Bishop had sold the gold to a Florida coin dealer and police knew or should have known. Sharp argued in the motion that using the purchase order as justification for the search warrant was “intentionally false and/or reckless to the truth.”
On the stand, Huelsman said later in his investigation he found that there are about 50 separate ounces of gold still unaccounted for.
The sparring turned trivial at times.
Hopkins Thomas got tripped up on a name and laughed during Huelsman’s testimony. Sharp objected.
“I’m going to ask that Ms. Thomas try to control the laughter,” Sharp said.
Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. agreed, pausing and softly telling her to control her laughter.
“I was not aware that I laughed,” Hopkins Thomas said.
The hearing came a day after a motion to suppress other evidence was dismissed. Hudson still needs to address other motions, one requesting electronic devices be returned to Bishop and one requesting the full case file. The hearing will resume on Monday.
In photo above, Bishop’s attorney, Allyn Sharp, seen with her laptop, sparred with prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas, center, when lead investigator Tony Huelsman was on the witness stand. Photo by Bill Adair | The 9th Street Journal
Clarification: An earlier version of this article contained a description of a video police interview with Sharon Bishop. The meaning of her comments in that video is unclear, so we have removed that passage.
Correction: This story has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly said that Bishop said in his 911 call that he found his father on the floor.
This story was reported and written by Niharika Vattikonda and Erin Williams
Alexander Bishop wept as the video played on the big screen in Courtroom 7D. It showed police arriving at his Durham home and working feverishly to save the life of William Bishop, his father.
The dramatic video, recorded by body cameras worn by Durham police officers, was the focus of a hearing Wednesday morning. It showed William Bishop unconscious on the floor as police officers urgently gave him CPR.
As the video played in court, Alexander Bishop removed his glasses and buried his face in his hands, sobbing.
Allyn Sharp — an attorney for Bishop, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing his father — questioned officers about whether they had followed proper procedures. Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. held the hearing to consider Sharp’s motions that contend Bishop was the victim of shoddy police work.
One of the motions asked the court to sanction prosecutors for failing to provide Bishop’s attorneys with all the search warrants and evidence related to the case. Another asked that investigators return Bishop’s and his mother’s electronic devices that were seized during a search.
The other two motions sought to dismiss evidence found as a result of search warrants and statements Bishop made when he was first questioned.
Those statements were the focus of much of the testimony Wednesday. Sharp questioned whether the statements Bishop made at the scene were lawfully obtained. But at the end of the day, Hudson denied her motion to suppress the evidence from that questioning. The hearing will continue Thursday on the other motions.
Wednesday’s testimony from police provided new details about the investigation and the early suspicions that officers had when they arrived at the Bishop home on April 18, 2018.
When Officer Austin Farley asked Bishop about his relationship with his father, Bishop described him as emotionally abusive. “He went on to state that he wasn’t too concerned if his father didn’t come back,” Farley testified. “He also stated that he would be afraid of what his father did if he did survive.”
Officer Samuel Kimball overheard Bishop’s remarks to first responders, and he testified that he was struck by the way Bishop talked about his father.
“I noticed that he was consistently referring to his father in the past tense,” Kimball said.
At that point, William Bishop still had a pulse and would not be pronounced dead until three days later in a hospital.
“Usually grieving relatives or someone in this situation is still referring to their family member in the present tense,” said Kimball.
In her motion, Sharp argued that police officers unlawfully interrogated the teenager in the house without advising him of his Miranda rights. Officer Matthew Garvin testified that they were simply securing the scene.
Sharp responded that for the purpose of Miranda rights, the only standard that applies is whether a reasonable person — in this case, a reasonable 16-year-old — would think that they were being held in custody. If that was the case for Bishop, then questioning him without an attorney or a parent present violated due process.
As a part of her cross-examination, Sharp played another clip from a body-cam video from one of the officers. “Keep an eye on the son. Make sure he doesn’t go anywhere,” Kimball says on the recording.
But the officers also testified that they were not ready to read him his Miranda rights.
“Did you at any point advise Alexander of his rights?” Sharp asked Officer Matthew Garvin, another police officer who responded to the call.
“I did not,” Garvin said. Two other officers on the stand also testified that Bishop was not read his Miranda rights.
However, Beth Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, argued that the “free to leave standard” — interpreted as whether the defendant thinks they’re in custody — does not apply under North Carolina law, which demands a “totality of the circumstances” analysis.
She said Bishop was allowed freedom of movement, the officers themselves did not make explicit statements that he was in custody, and no restraint or intimidation was used to keep the defendant in the house.
In his 911 call, Alexander Bishop said repeatedly that he thought his father was dead and suggested twice that the family’s dog may have strangled him by twisting a leash around his father’s neck. Police began to focus on Bishop as a suspect, and a grand jury indicted him in February.
In July, Bishop’s attorneys filed motions to throw out most of the evidence, including statements made by the defendant. The motions also claimed that the lead homicide investigator omitted key facts to obtain search warrants.
At the hearing, officers testified about their growing suspicions while they were at the Bishop home.
After Kimball turned off his body cam, he met with other officers to discuss what they had found. He sent one of them to find Bishop, “just to monitor his movements out of caution,” Kimball said.
Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, asked Kimball what he thought at that point.
“I said that either it was a suicide or the kid did it.”
This fall, The 9th Street Journal is going to court.
We’ve launched a special project to cover the Durham courthouse. We’ll be reporting on cases big and small – some that you’ve heard about and many that you haven’t.
Our goal is to explore justice in America and the efforts to make it fairer. Durham has a charismatic new district attorney, Satana Deberry, who is one of the leaders in a nationwide movement to reform the criminal justice system. Our reporters will be tracking her efforts and assessing whether she is delivering on her campaign promises.
Our student journalists also will be spending a lot of time in courtrooms, reporting on trials and hearings and plea bargains. We’ll give you a front-row seat to Durham justice.
The courthouse project is staffed by some of Duke’s best journalists. Julianna Rennie, who has interned for NBC News, PolitiFact, and the Charlotte Observer, is the student editor. The reporters are Erin Williams, Ben Leonard, Swathi Ramprasad, Kristi Sturgill, and Niharika Vattikonda.
I started the 9th Street Journal a year ago to provide students in our growing journalism program with new opportunities to cover local news. The courthouse project is an excellent next step that will give them a chance to delve deep into some of the most important issues facing not just Durham, but the entire country.
-Bill Adair, Editor
(Above, the Courthouse Project team, from left: Niharika Vattikonda, Erin Williams, Cameron Beach, Julianna Rennie, Bill Adair, Kristi Sturgill, Swathi Ramprasad and Ben Leonard. Photo by Cameron Beach.)