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Durham Bulls’ home run spree batters Nashville





Their home city’s heatwave may be easing this week, but the Durham Bulls’ bats continued to scorch the Nashville Sounds Thursday night, with a multi-home-run barrage that carried them to a 9-7 victory.

Led by newcomer Jordan Qsar, who belted two homers, the Bulls overwhelmed the Sounds with power hitting for the second game in a row at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. They’ve now hit 11 home runs in their last two games. Three have come off Qsar’s bat.

“I think at the end of the day, the only adjusting is probably – you know – new atmosphere, new territory,” said the outfielder, who played his fifth game for the Bulls Thursday night after coming from the Montgomery Biscuits. “But the game is the game. The only thing you can do….is keep doing what you’ve been doing, and just keep playing and sticking to your approach.”

On a cool evening that was a welcome respite from Durham’s recent 90-plus degree days, the Bulls homered half a dozen times. The night before, the Bulls’ five home runs catapulted them to a 17-4 walloping of the Sounds, who lead the Triple A’s International League West division.

The Bulls (27-24) occupy fourth place in the International East division.

After Nashville’s Mark Mathias started Thursday’s scoring with a two-run homer in the first inning, Qsar matched him in the second with a line-drive home run that also scored shortstop Xavier Edwards, another Bulls newcomer. 

And Edwards wasn’t finished. With Josh Lowe and Luke Raley on base in the third, he blasted a three-run homer, which Qsar and Jim Haley followed with back-to-back solo shots that propelled the Bulls to a 7-2 lead.

Not that the Sounds went quietly. In the fifth, Nashville designated hitter Garrett Whitley’s solo homer and Pablo Reyes’ bases-loaded walk trimmed the gap to 7-4. 

Even after the Bulls’ solo home runs by Jonathan Aranda and Lowe in the bottom of the fifth extended the lead to 9-4, Nashville didn’t go away. In the seventh, the Sounds loaded the bases and managed one run, when David Dahl scored on Mathias’ double play. Later that inning, Tyler White hammered a homer, slicing the lead to 9-7.

But Bulls relievers Seth Blair and Cristofer Ogando kept the Sounds off the board the rest of the game. Blair got five outs in the seventh and eighth innings, and Ogando blanked Nashville in the ninth. 

“We were throwing strikes [in] the seventh. And you know Blair and Ogando came in and they were throwing strikes….allowing the defense to play and they put up two big zeros to allow us to win the game,” Bulls manager Brady Williams said.

Pitcher Easton McGee, who threw five innings and gave up three runs, got the win and improved his record to 3-3. Ogando picked up the save. 

The six-game series continues tonight at 6:30 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.. 

“The more the merrier, because home runs are on the board,” Williams said of the Bulls’ recent long-ball hitting. “You know, the one thing a home run does is it electrifies the group, you know, and the dugout gets fired up.”

TOP: Durham Bulls Josh Lowe and Luke Raley score on an Xavier Edwards home run in the bottom of the third inning of Durham’s 9-7 win Thursday night over the Nashville Sounds. Photo by Ana Young, The 9th Street Journal.

Reflections podcast: Lessons learned while covering city council

After attending a Durham City Council meeting this Spring, a trio of 9th Street Journal reporters collaborated on a jointly authored story. The meeting—and the story—focussed largely on ShotSpotter, a controversial gunshot detection technology that the city may soon adopt.

In the latest episode of our Reflections podcast, Duke professor Stephen Buckley joins student reporters Alex Kumar, Kelly Torres and Zella Hanson to talk about what they learned while covering the meeting, including lessons about journalism and democracy.

You can hear these and other conversations with student journalists on our Reflections podcast, available on Spotify and Apple. Reflections is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

Above: Photo of Stephen Buckley, Alex Kumar, Kelly Torres and Zella Hanson by Alison Jones — The 9th Street Journal 

Reflections podcast: Learning life lessons through journalism

Student reporter Julianna Rennie has been deeply involved in journalism during her time at Duke, helping to found The 9th Street Journal’s Courthouse Project, among other initiatives. In the course of learning about journalism, Julianna also learned important life lessons, including lessons about confidence, about injustice, about how to ask good questions and how to seek information.

Julianna sat down recently with Bill Adair, founder of The 9th Street Journal, to discuss her time at the center for the Reflections podcast. The podcast episode is the latest entry in our Reflections series, occasional pieces that feature 9th Street Journal reporters writing and talking about lessons they’ve learned — about themselves and about journalism.

You can hear additional episodes featuring student reporters Grace Abels, Lilly Clark and Milla Surjadi on our Reflections podcast, available on Spotify and Apple. The Reflections series is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

Above: Julianna Rennie interviewing local chef Matt Kelly. Photo by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal 

How Elon Musk and his trolls attacked a Duke professor on Twitter

It is not unusual for Tesla CEO Elon Musk to tweet 30 times a day. Twitter is his marketing platform, his customer service hub and, unfortunately for his opponents, his battleground. (And now, he is seeking to buy it.)

Last October, Musk used Twitter to target Missy Cummings, a Duke University professor and automation expert. “Objectively, her track record is extremely biased against Tesla,” he tweeted in response to one of his fans.

Those 9 words – just the latest in an ongoing disagreement between two outsized personalities in the booming field of automation – unleashed a fury. 

Musk’s tweet mobilized an army of virtual trolls that attacked Cummings, who initially responded with grace. “​​Happy to sit down and talk with you anytime,” she tweeted back to Musk. This only enraged the trolls further, who smeared her online. And two days later, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of online harassment, Cummings deleted her Twitter account, stopped all public commentary and for the next few months largely went silent online.

This is the tale of that feud, which represents two distinct viewpoints about the technology behind the nation’s most popular electric car. The feud continues to simmer in different corners of social media, and will likely boil over in new ways in the future, especially if Musk succeeds with the Twitter takeover and his promise to make his favorite battlefield “broadly inclusive.” 

This account is based on the tweets and public statements made by the many parties involved, a petition, LinkedIn posts by Cummings, and the syllabus she used for her Duke engineering course at the time of the tumult on Twitter. Cummings declined to comment to The 9th Street Journal. Neither Tesla nor Musk responded to requests. 

‘Killer robots’

The online feud traces back to at least 2017 when Cummings, a widely known former Navy pilot who became a professor in Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, began tweeting her concerns about Tesla’s highly automated cars, saying that they were “killing people,” among other criticisms. 

Sometimes she was clinical, tweeting that Tesla’s autopilot technology gave drivers “mode confusion.” Other times she was blunt, saying that Tesla’s “killer robots” are so dangerous her students who tested them in the lab should “get hazardous duty pay.”

On occasion, she got personal toward Musk. Cummings went as far as posting a GIF of a woman knocking a man out of his chair with a single punch, suggesting she might do the same to Musk. 

Cummings has since deleted and apologized for that tweet. “I was trying to make an admittedly bad joke that I would pull no punches if in a conversation with Elon Musk,” she posted in February. She clarified that she loves Tesla as a company and believes electric cars are the future, but feels obligated to voice the safety concerns she has with an automation system that is “terribly flawed.” 

The apology apparently didn’t do much to mend her relationship with Musk or his fervent supporters. 

Musk’s tweet inspired his supporters to begin attacking Missy Cummings.

When President Biden appointed Cummings to be a senior advisor for safety at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Oct. 19, Tesla supporters immediately took to Twitter to air their grievances, however profane and inappropriate. 

Insults were hurled at Cummings calling her “anti-American,” a “tacky, petty woman,” an “obnoxious female” and a “b*tt hurt old woman.” One since-removed tweet responded to the news of Cummings’s appointment by saying: “If they try and take Autopilot (Tesla’s automated driving system) away from us we will riot so hard January 6 will look like a day at Disneyland.”

A handful of users voiced their support for Cummings online, saying, “Missy, I’m sorry this is happening. I support you!” or “thank you for your service Missy.” The Naturalistic Decision Making Association, an organization that helps clients navigate high-stakes decision-making, issued a statement acknowledging its support of Cummings. But these voices were far outnumbered.

Following her appointment, Cummings refrained from responding to the trolls. She was still directing research at Duke’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, which focuses on the interactions between humans and computers with autonomous features. (The lab’s acronym is HAL, a nod to the evil computer in one of Cummings’s favorite films, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

No stranger to stress

During the Twitter battle, she was teaching a class at Duke’s engineering school called The Human Element in Cyber Security, lecturing her undergraduate students about cybersecurity breaches. On the last page of her class syllabus, Cummings pasted a link to a list of Duke resources meant to help students who are experiencing “a range of issues that could pose a challenge to learning” including anxiety, stress and feeling down. 

Cummings is no stranger to stress. Her interests put her in situations where she has to regularly contemplate life or death scenarios. She’s also no stranger to sexism, or to being challenged by powerful men. 

In the Navy, men went out of their way to make Cummings’s life difficult. “I saw all the problems that come around with being one of a minority that’s trying to break into a majority,” she said in a podcast interview with Forward Thinking. One of her call names, nicknames given to aviators, was Medusa, a formidable woman in Greek mythology.

Cummings pivoted to a new career path. Her interest in preventing plane crashes led her to space systems engineering and eventually to Duke, where she focused on operator trust of autonomous systems and simulating unmanned robotic environments. The common thread: safety. 

The trolls

Cummings has seen what can happen when there is miscommunication between human and machine. It’s what compels her to speak out against Tesla. Her main gripe is not with Musk, it’s with his refusal to incorporate a particular safety technology, LiDAR, into Tesla’s automation system. 

LiDAR is a radar system that uses lasers to measure the distance between a sensor and surrounding objects. Cummings believes LiDAR is crucial for self-driving cars to accurately make sense of their surroundings. But Musk disagrees, calling the system “a fool’s errand.” 

So, Cummings called him out.

The trolls responded right away. The day after her NHTSA appointment, one ventured beyond Twitter to create a petition on that called on the Biden administration to reconsider its appointment of Cummings to NHTSA due to “violation of agency guidelines and ethical principles concerning conflict of interest and bias.” It cited Cummings’s role on the board of directors at Veoneer, a Swedish automation company in competition with Tesla (she has since resigned); the unproven charge that she was a member of TSLAQ, an online collective of Tesla critics; and her public statements. 

Written under the moniker “Autopilot Users for Progress,” the petition gained over 30,000 signatures in 48 hours before took it down due to “defamatory” content. The tweets however, continued to flood in, and on Oct. 21, Cummings deleted her Twitter account.

This measure, though drastic, did little to tame the trolls. They continue to harass Cummings on Twitter, even if she may never see it. Some found her personal email and began to send her threats privately. The emails prompted Cummings, who had declined to comment on the attacks, to break her silence. 

‘In case anything happens to me’

Two months ago, on her LinkedIn page, Cummings posted screenshots of threatening messages she’s received “so that there is a traceable and public record in case anything happens to me.” 

The use of words like “consequences” and “karma” in these messages are what scares Cummings, she said. “I am increasingly concerned about my personal safety around people who clearly are not capable of rational and reasoned thinking,” she posted.

One person suggested on LinkedIn that Cummings seek protection from the university, but Cummings responded “unfortunately Duke has not been supportive, they are afraid of controversy.”

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, declined to comment on her critical LinkedIn post. 

Cummings also wrote, “when women say they are afraid for their physical #safety, especially those of us who are public facing, they need to be believed.”

Photos at top: Missy Cummings –  Duke University; Elon Musk – Wikimedia Commons 

Reflections: How journalism can save the world

In light of rising disdain for journalism—often known merely as the “media,” that undifferentiated behemoth—as biased or corrupt or useless in this age of skyrocketing polarization and information overload, it’s time for an ode to journalism as a way to tell stories that change the world.

When journalists cover an event or investigate an issue, they bear witness to something not everyone has seen. Maybe they’re among the few people allowed inside that refugee camp. One of the few people who got to interview that hostage crisis survivor. Regardless of what they’ve seen (no matter how seemingly mundane), the journalist is somehow changed.

The journalist now knows more about who someone is, how something works. Maybe they bear witness to suffering, and they experience empathy in a way they hadn’t before. The lens through which they see an issue, or the world at large, is widened or even reshaped. Things look different.

It’s the job of the journalist to impart this to readers. The average citizen doesn’t have a press pass; they can’t go to Afghanistan or Ukraine to speak to refugees because how could they? But the journalist has the power to enable readers to come along, to be there, too. Through skillful storytelling, the journalist plants readers in the very seat they occupied, experiencing the events they experienced. The reader bears witness, their lens shifts, things look different.

This process requires an adept journalist and an at-least-somewhat engaged reader, but it’s universally applicable within journalism—from a short local story about a town hall meeting to a feature about a Key Issue Of Our Time. And I think it’s exciting and inspiring and the way we’ll save ourselves.

I think many of the most complex problems of our time are due to lack of information, or misinformation, or misunderstanding. And that the existence of institutionalized racism is something everyone could grasp if they only talked to certain people, read certain books. Same with anthropogenic climate change. Same with a global inequality gap that’s reminiscent of feudalism. I believe we as a country—even as a species—could get on the same page and fix some stuff.

But the people whose attention I’d grab if I could are not talking to those people and reading those books. And it’s no longer enough for people with an eye to social justice to live in an echo chamber, endlessly refining their own positions and basking in the sounds of their own voices while pretending those who disagree don’t exist. They do exist—people whose opinions on climate change were handed to them by Big Oil. People who refuse to acknowledge structural racism. People whose capitalist convictions have never been questioned. They exist. And in order to engage them, it’s time to appreciate the power of the most accessible, populist avenue for change we have: the viral article. (Especially contained within a viral tweet.)

Imagine this: a bill is being debated on the House floor that would impose some sort of controversial measure. Like a way to federally control rent, let’s say. A legitimate news outlet assigns a journalist to the story. The journalist crafts a beautiful, heart-wrenching, factually impeccable story about a few victims of the housing crisis and the way this bill would transform their lives. The story grabs you by the shoulders with its lede, lyricism, and pathos, but teaches you much through an excellent amalgamation of expert opinions and statistics. It offers nuance: interviews with people who have been affected in contradictory ways, experts with diverse opinions. The story goes viral.

In classic internet fashion, it owes its reach to the style of the writing and the appeal of the “characters,” rather than the bill’s crucial civic implications. But viral is viral. And it’s ubiquitous on platforms like Twitter and Instagram—hundreds of thousands see it.

Hypothetical Reader Amy is a conservative from the Midwest who thinks the bill harkens back to the days of Soviet Russia. Or maybe she’s a wealthy woman who considers herself liberal but is nonetheless worried about anything that would deflate the income she receives from her Airbnb. She could assume any number of identities that makes her inclined to oppose the bill. Whoever she is, she finds the article because her son sends it to her, or an old friend reposts it on Instagram, or someone she follows on Twitter posts something criticizing it. But for whatever reason, she clicks.

And that’s all you need. Because true stories told well often speak for themselves.

Probably, Amy’s mind isn’t changed forever, just like that, happily ever after. But if the journalist did a good enough job to keep her reading, then something changed for Amy. A spark of empathy, some facts she never thought to consider, even a flash of curiosity that leads her to do some research. Because of the journalist’s skillful storytelling, Amy was able to bear witness. And because of that, somehow, things look a little different.

I think that’s how we save the world.

Above: Photo of Zella Hanson by Rebecca Schneid — The 9th Street Journal

Reflections: Flashing lights, a warning, and a real-life lesson on race

The flashing lights of the police car caught me by surprise. 

It was dark out, and my friend had asked if he could turn the music louder. I said yes – I, too, like my music loud. But as I continued down Chapel Hill Street, enjoying the rap music, I saw the lights flash in my rearview mirror.

“Am I being pulled over?” I asked. 

“Yes,” he said. 

For what? I wondered.

It seemed an odd time for me to get pulled over.  For many weeks, I had been doing investigative reporting about a presentation on traffic stops given to the Duke football team by the sheriff’s office.  The timing  seemed ironic after I spent the last three months talking to players, legal experts, team representatives and the sheriff’s office, to piece together what happened at the meeting and to ponder what it meant about the fraught relationship between police and Black people.

Five Black players had told me they were bothered by the presentation because they felt the Durham Sheriff’s Office was justifying traffic stops of Black men. Law professors told me the sheriff’s office had used misleading statistics and told an incomplete story.

I, myself, had never been stopped – until this moment, which happened to be a week before the article came out. I am a white 20-year-old from Los Angeles. My friend in the front passenger’s seat is a 6-foot-1 Black man. “I’ve never been pulled over before,” I said to my friend as we waited for the police officer to walk up to the car.

“Really?” he asked. “Wow.” He had been stopped several times.

I asked him to tell me what to do, because he would know better than I did. I never got a lecture from my parents about being stopped by the police. My parents don’t have to worry about my life in a situation like this.

You might expect a cop to come to the driver’s side first. Instead he went to the passenger window, where the Black man was sitting. My friend rolled down the window. 

Looking past him, the officer told me I was going 11 miles over the speed limit. I gave him my license and braced for a scolding when I added that it was a friend’s car and I wasn’t sure where the registration was. He said that was fine, and walked to his police car with my license.

I got a text message from the owner of the car, a friend from Duke, that her registration was in the glove compartment. I told my friend in the front seat to grab it for me, but he said it would look suspicious.

“Alright, then I’ll grab it,” I said, as if that were any better. He repeated himself. I stayed still. 

I was texting my friends in a frenzy, but I was most worried about my mom’s reaction to whatever ticket I was about to get.

“My mom is going to slit my throat,” I said. I wanted to take that comment back the second it slipped out. 

“I’m sure she’ll be happy you’re safe,” my friend said with a reassuring tone.

What he said next underlined the utter ridiculousness of my comment. 

“I’m just trying not to get shot.”

He was right – I was not the one in danger. I started to say something else, but he stopped me because the officer was walking back towards us. I prepared for a citation, a ticket, a fine. I had my phone ready in case I needed to call the owner of the car. 

Once again he came to the passenger window.

“Here’s your warning,” the cop said, and handed me a single piece of paper. “No charges. You’re just in our system.”

(“You really got off scot-free,” my friend would later tell me, noting that he got pulled over for speeding in January. He got a ticket.)

I took the paper. It was my friend, not me, who said, “Thank you, sir. Have a good day.”

I started the car and drove away.

At top, photo of Charlotte Kramon by Simran Prakash – The 9th Street Journal

Reflections podcast: Compassion in courthouse reporting

In December, we published Milla Surjadi’s elegant essay about how she is learning to do her reporting with both rigor and humanity. She has now followed that up with equally compelling insights in the third episode of our Reflections podcast, in which she expounds on the theme of her essay. Milla’s work is the latest in our Reflections series, occasional pieces that feature 9th Street Journal reporters writing and talking about lessons they’ve learned – about themselves and about journalism.

Grace Abels and Lilly Clark wrote the first two pieces, and you can listen to all three students discuss their insights on our Reflections podcast, available on Spotify and Apple. Reflections is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

Above: Photo of Milla Surjadi by Winnie Lu

Prosecutor spotlights victims’ needs — in and out of court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold case sexual assault unit whittles sprawling rape kit backlog

A visitor discovered the first victim half-naked in a bathroom at Duke Hospital, recovering from having been choked unconscious. Bits of her attacker’s flesh were lodged under her fingernails, the remnants of a violent struggle.

 A month and a half later, another woman was walking home on Ellerbe Creek Trail when the attacker again appeared and strangled his victim from behind until she blacked out. This time, he raped her. 

Despite a sexual assault kit collected from the second victim, as well as surveillance footage of the first victim and DNA samples from her fingernails, these 2015 attacks went unpunished for six years.

But the attacker, 33-year-old Emanuel Burch, couldn’t hide forever. Thanks to a state-funded initiative with the Durham Police Department (DPD), Burch was sentenced on Oct. 25 to at least 16 years in prison—the latest in a string of convictions in rape cold cases.

Since 2019, the DPD’s Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit has been working through an enormous logjam in mostly untested rape kits. The unit has identified at least three other repeat offenders and has charged over a dozen suspects in total. And they’re only about halfway done.

Said Lt. Stephen Vaughan, who works closely with the unit: “We still have a lot of work to do.” 

A massive backlog

When North Carolina passed the Survivor Act in 2019, the state had one of the country’s most extensive rape kit backlogs. Of the more than 16,000 kits left untested in North Carolina, 1,700 were in Durham County, The News & Observer reported.

Vaughan blames the limitations of old DNA testing technology, as well as previous state restrictions on when rape kits could be processed.

At an October 2020 news conference, however, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein also referenced a lack of “sensitivity” toward sexual assault victims. He said some police departments used to dismiss a case if the alleged victim’s story varied at all between retellings.

“There’s [now] greater scientific knowledge about the impact of trauma,” Stein said, referring to research that shows traumatic memories are often shaky or inconsistent. “There’s more understanding about victims’ rights.”

The Survivor Act allocated $6 million to jumpstart progress on untested rape kits. In the past two years, Durham County has submitted almost its entire backlog to a private testing company in Virginia. 

Bode Technology is working through these kits — some of which date back to 1988 — alongside a mountain of other kits from throughout North Carolina and other states. Any time the lab gets a hit on a Durham DNA sample, it notifies the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit.

Catching a rapist 

Police got their first strong lead on the two strangulation attacks in September 2019.

Unlike in many other cold cases, investigators had sent this rape kit for testing shortly after collecting it, said prosecutor Blake Norman. They identified leads and pored through available evidence. But they were unable to match the kit’s DNA to any suspects, and the case soon went cold.

Investigators have two main ways of identifying criminals through DNA.

The simplest way is if a person is arrested on a felony charge. Law enforcement collect alleged felons’ DNA and upload it to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national genetic database. Testing companies like Bode regularly check their databases’ DNA against CODIS and notify investigators when there’s a match.

This can provide powerful evidence against a suspect. 

“You take away the argument of, ‘Oh, I didn’t do it’ or ‘I wasn’t there,’” Norman said. 

When there isn’t a CODIS match, investigators can also turn to genetic genealogy. Genetic profiling companies like 23andMe and send their data to law enforcement. So if a suspect’s close family members take one of these tests, that can help investigators home in on the criminal even if the suspect’s DNA isn’t in CODIS. 

By itself, however, genetic genealogy doesn’t provide enough evidence to arrest someone. That’s because it’s imprecise and usually can’t distinguish a perpetrator from, say, their sibling. Investigators need the suspect’s own DNA, and they sometimes have to find creative ways of gathering it—digging through trash cans, collecting cigarette butts, etc.

Durham police identified Burch when they got a CODIS hit following his arrest in another state, Norman said.

A cheek swab confirmed the match, and Burch was charged with strangulation, sexual battery and attempted rape in the first attack, as well as rape and attempted murder in the second. Prosecutors later dropped the attempted rape and attempted murder charges.

Pressing charges

Generally, the judicial system invests little time or resources into crime victims. Prosecutors represent the state, not victims, and some Durham victims have complained about a lack of support from courts and say they have little influence on how their cases are prosecuted.

But the Special Victims Unit, which handles child abuse cases as well as sexual assaults, works differently.

Investigators say they don’t prosecute alleged rapists until they contact survivors and get their consent. Since many attackers are already serving extensive prison sentences by the time police identify them, investigators say, victims sometimes choose not to press charges.

At an Apr. 13 press conference, Vaughan said the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit had found DNA matches in 17 cases, resulting in 13 suspects being charged.

Once the DPD contacts an alleged victim, Vaughan said police direct the victim to an in-house advocate who works with them and helps them decide whether to go forward with the case. Victims may also speak with the Durham Crisis Response Center, which offers free counseling and confidential services for survivors and their loved ones.

Jasmin Young-Bradshaw, the crisis center’s interim executive director, stressed that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to victim advocacy.

“We’re here to listen,” Young-Bradshaw said. “Really, it’s about supporting them in a way that they see is fit.”

Securing a conviction

In addition to Burch, the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit has identified at least three other serial attackers.

One suspect, who faces charges in one Durham attack and two attacks in Florida, was still awaiting trial as of the April 2021 press conference. Another pleaded guilty in August to two counts of rape. And the third—a 60-year-old—died in March while facing two charges each of rape and sexual battery.

As for Burch, he pleaded guilty as charged in the first 2015 attack and took an Alford plea in the second. This means that he denies sexually assaulting the victim, but admits that a jury would convict him based on the evidence.

A judge ordered Burch to undergo psychiatric counseling, receive substance abuse treatment and participate in a behavior adjustment program for sexual offenders. Altogether, Burch may serve up to 24 years and 3 months behind bars.

It’s unclear if Duke Hospital made any changes to its security following the attack there. A spokesperson said over email that she would try to find out, but several weeks later, she had yet to provide details.

Durham County’s backlog of rape kits is no longer growing, Vaughan said. Police send most kits for testing within a week, and survivors can view the current status of their kit via an online portal.

DNA testing continues to get faster and more accurate, and Vaughan believes sexual assault investigations will improve.

“As the technology gets better and better and we learn more about it and get more used to it,” he said, “it just becomes a better tool.”

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, the following resources are available:

  • Durham Crisis Response Center 24-hour help line: 919-403-6562 (English); 919-519-3735 (Spanish)
  • Durham Police Department Special Victims Unit: 919-560-4440
  • NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault: 919-871-1015

PHOTO ABOVE: Emanuel Burch may serve more than 24 years for strangulation and sexual battery in two Durham attacks in 2015.

Reflections: Should students vote in local elections?

Few journalists covered the Durham elections more closely than the student reporters of The 9th Street Journal. They spent hours with the candidates, attended campaign events, and talked with local groups about their endorsements. But despite all that effort, some members of the 9th Street staff said they still felt like outsiders in the Bull City and wondered if they should vote. In a conversation after the election, they discussed their feelings. (The transcript is edited for space and clarity.)

Bill Adair, Co-Editor: How did your journalism change the way you look at Durham?

Jake Sheridan, Student Editor: I understood Durham as a really progressive place and as a place where people cared a lot about what’s going on. And I think I expected a certain civic interest that didn’t develop, that certainly wasn’t reflected in turnout, in the general interest people had in the race. I was surprised that Durham didn’t go vote.

Bill: I wonder if the people who did vote are the people who have lived here a long time and the people who didn’t vote are the people who moved here more recently.

Jake: Yeah, and I think that’s really interesting because, as a Duke student, I’ve seen a couple of elections. When it was a national election, Duke and the areas surrounding Duke — Ninth Street — it was like a paramilitary operation to register voters and to get people to vote for Democrats. And I think Duke is particularly emblematic of that newcomer aura in Durham. A lot of the students here aren’t from here, and they’re kind of coming and going, maybe even less invested than people who live here.

Caroline Petrow-Cohen, Reporter: I’ve always kind of thought that it’s a shame that so many Duke students are not more engaged in the Durham community, and I still think that. But my roommate the other day asked me if I thought Duke students should vote in local elections and I was like, “Of course.” And she was like, “But isn’t that unfair to the people who actually live here? Why should we be voting for our interests if we’re leaving in four years?” And I thought that was interesting because my instinct is of course you should vote, you should read up on the issues and vote. But (her point) is kind of valid. Why do we deserve to have a say if we don’t really live in Durham? We’re just here for four years. I voted, obviously, because I covered it. But not many of my friends voted, even though I was like, “Look at The Ninth Street Journal and read about the candidates.” 

Becca Schneid, Reporter: Well, it’s almost worse when they vote. I think a lot of people change their address to North Carolina for the presidential election because they are from California or somewhere or Texas, so they’re like, “my vote counts more in North Carolina,” haven’t changed it back since and now are here with this power. You’re asking an important question. People have texted me and been like, “I’m going to vote right now, who should I vote for?” because they know that I’ve covered it. That’s so bad (that they have to ask me).

Charlotte Kramon, Reporter: We can’t make that decision.

Caroline: Just because we covered it doesn’t mean that I have the same interests as someone who lives in the city. I think I’m doing the right thing, but am I? I don’t think it’s ever the right thing to not vote, but maybe it is. I don’t know.

Bill: Yeah…that’s an interesting question. At what point is someone suitably up on the candidates and issues so they can make a wise decision? And some people argue, “Well, you should really know the issues and you should know the candidates before you vote.” And so therefore a low turnout is not necessarily a bad thing. It reflects people who aren’t engaged and therefore maybe should not be voting.

Julianna Rennie, Student Editor: I’m pretty sure Javiera Caballero got at least a thousand-something votes and she had dropped out of the race. So how informed are those people if they didn’t even know she wasn’t running? Or are we assuming those people made a conscious decision to vote for her because they preferred her policies?

Becca: I know some of them didn’t (support her) for her policies.

Bill:  Yeah, we probably all know at least one person who voted for Caballero.

Charlotte: When I spoke to Professor Mac McCorkle for my turnout article, he was saying 10 percent of people voted. How is this democratic? That begs the larger question if we’re saying like, “Well, maybe it’s good that the people who turned out are the ones who are most engaged.” But then on a broad level, that can also be a slippery slope to “Well, if people aren’t informed, they shouldn’t vote.” I still think that ultimately, if we’re looking for purely democratic purposes, everyone should vote and they should be informed. But if they’re not informed, the logic of “they should be excluded” can lead to other issues.

Olivia Olsher, Reporter: I think something I would have really appreciated coming into Duke would have been a kind of local news orientation – where can you get your local news, outlining here’s who you can follow on Twitter, here’s what the local government is doing, who they are, and the main issues that are happening and being discussed this year. I feel like a 30-minute debrief on Durham, where you’re going to be living for four years, would be really helpful. 

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

Above, a sign points the way on Election Day. Photo by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal