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Posts tagged as “A courthouse moment”

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.

A courthouse moment: ‘This is my freedom on the line’

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.”

A courthouse moment: ‘He hasn’t gotten enough time for what he did’

After he pleaded guilty to murder Tuesday, Travon Evans will spend at least 12 years in prison for killing his grandmother, Carolyn Hemingway, and stabbing his 4-year-old brother. He’ll get credit for the more than five years he’s already spent in jail since he was arrested.

But that sentence didn’t satisfy Hemingway’s brother Julius Robinson, who stood in the courtroom and addressed Evans.

“I am a Christian, but it doesn’t make it right for what Travon has done,” Robinson said. “He hasn’t gotten enough time for what he did.” 

Then, he asked why Evans did it. 

Evans whispered in his attorney Dawn Baxton’s ear. He didn’t want to answer. 

Baxton spoke on his behalf. “He does want the court to know and his uncle to know that he is sorry for what happened to his grandmother,” she said. 

Before the Tuesday hearing, the 22-year-old sat on a cold wooden bench with his head down, looking at the floor through oversized aviator glasses with his hands cuffed. His orange Durham jumpsuit didn’t hide that he had gotten much heftier since he committed the crimes when he was 17. 

Scarred by a violent household growing up, Evans had post-traumatic stress disorder. He was immature for his age, prosecutors said. That reduced his culpability, according to prosecutor Kendra Montgomery-Blinn.

With credit for time served, that meant he could be in jail for between six and a half and about 10 years in prison. That didn’t sit well with Robinson, who noted how Hemingway had cared for Evans. 

“She took him in at six years old and raised him,” he said of his sister. “She showed nothing but love for him.”

Montgomery-Blinn provided a detailed account of the crime. She said Evans had cut the lights. Police found his grandmother dead and bloody in bed. Beside her in bed were an unharmed baby soaked in Hemingway’s blood and a large kitchen knife. 

In the ambulance, his brother said what happened. 

“Tra had tried to make it dark and scary,” he said. “Tra killed my meemaw with that old ugly knife.”