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Posts tagged as “A courthouse moment”

A Courthouse Moment: ‘It’s exhausting.’

Michael Ray Johnson, 34, has been waiting in jail for more than 200 days. Three years have passed since he broke into a woman’s home and assaulted her and her daughter, the mother of his son.

In this bond hearing on a recent Tuesday, Johnson sits in an airy Durham County courtroom, wearing long cream-colored sleeves beneath his orange uniform. He has almond-colored skin and cropped hair. He stares coolly ahead and sits mostly motionless and silent.  

Small groups of courthouse staff watch and whisper to each other, but the benches for people who aren’t paid to be here—defendants or victims or family—are mostly empty. 

After three years of delays, Crystal Smith, the mother of Johnson’s young son, doesn’t show up in court. And Lisa Fowler, the boy’s grandmother, who was once adamant about pursuing charges, isn’t there either. She is tired of waiting.

Fowler  “just says she doesn’t care what happens. It’s exhausting,” Assistant District Attorney Brooks Stone tells Judge Michael O’Foghludha. “She feels like her input is irrelevant, and it’s taking so long. This happened back in 2018.”

Since then, much has changed in Durham’s courthouse. Durham elected a new district attorney. A slew of prosecutors left; new ones picked up the stacks of files they left behind. The delays of a pandemic and busy DA’s office now keep worn-out victims and defendants alike in greater limbo than before.

According to the state, Johnson broke into Fowler’s home in June 2018. He entered through a window and tussled with Fowler and with Smith. He then ran outside, beat on Fowler’s Toyota Solara with a baseball bat, and then drove off. 

Fowler, her daughter and then-three-year-old grandson followed him outside. As Johnson drove off, neighbors heard gunshots. Police think Johnson was firing at Fowler, her daughter and grandchild. 

Smith dialed 911 that night. Now that she’s not interested in pressing charges, that call stands as her only testimony. 

The absence of Smith and Fowler could spell the end of Johnson’s case. Prosecutors don’t represent victims, but they do rely on them to testify. Domestic violence victims, in particular, are often uncooperative, Stone says. Johnson appeared in court on assault charges against Smith before, in 2017 and 2018, but the DA dismissed those charges because she didn’t show. 

Johnson’s files were swapped twice between DA’s. They first reassigned his case in September 2019, after six months without any hearings. His case was delayed again when the pandemic forced the courthouse to close for months. Finally, after 10 months without an appearance, Stone picked up his cases in July 2020, and Johnson got a new court date.

“His matters kind of got lost in the system,” Idrissa Smith, Johnson’s public defender, tells O’Foghludha. The lawyer gestures with his left hand and rests his right hand on Johnson’s shoulder. 

While Johnson’s case was postponed, he was free. But shortly after his case returned to the calendar, he missed a court date, and the police issued a warrant for his arrest. They picked Johnson up in February for illegal possession of drugs and jailed him for his failure to appear in court. He has remained in jail since.

The DA’s office postponed Johnson’s last three District Court dates for the drug charges without Johnson in the room, Idrissa Smith says. Durham prosecutors started automatically postponing cases to keep courtrooms uncrowded and prevent the spread of COVID-19. But they’re not supposed to do this to defendants in jail, Johnson’s attorney says. 

“At this point, keeping him in custody when you don’t really have witnesses is pre-trial punishment,” Idrissa Smith tells the court.

Because of the delays, the defense attorney hasn’t looked at the state’s evidence against Johnson in the drug case. 

 “I, as his defense attorney, have no clue what’s going on,” Idrissa Smith says, his voice echoing  through the room. He asks the judge to release Johnson and put him on house arrest, but the judge denies the motion. 

The state keeps Johnson in jail for another two weeks until Oct. 5, when he agrees to a plea deal. He will get credit for his time in jail and serve 15 to 27 months total for eight felonies. The waiting — for everyone — is over.

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Get your bearings together’

Ralph Pilgrim slumped into a seat next to his public defender at the front of Courtroom 5A. With an elbow on the arm of the chair, propping up his head, he tossed his navy blue cap aside, leaned back and closed his eyes. Pilgrim, 61, has been here before.

He was convicted in September 2019 for assaulting a woman. Instead of the maximum sentence of 150 days in jail, he received supervised probation for 24 months. After a probation violation in March 2020, his sentence was extended for 12 months. 

But on a Wednesday in late September, he was back in Durham County District Court for allegedly violating his probation again. Now, he faced possible jail time. 

In an ideal situation, a judge’s ruling definitively resolves a case. The verdict is simple and lasting. But sometimes, a judge’s adjudication doesn’t mean a case is over. Instead, a 24-month probation can turn into 36, which can turn into a jail sentence. Another series of court appearances begins, each visit newly unfamiliar and complicated, regardless of how many times one has entered a courtroom before. 

Judge Shamieka Rhinehart called the District Attorney’s office to introduce the case. Pilgrim stood up, towering over his public defender, Nicole Edwards. He was bald and heavyset, with thin wire-frame glasses. He wore acid-wash jeans and a gray graphic t-shirt that read “Good Vibes.”

In a matching tan suit and skirt, District Attorney intern Rachel Tucker introduced the case to Rhinehart. Her voice trembled, and she stopped in the middle of sentences to look down at her papers. 

Tucker alleged that Pilgrim left his last known address and intentionally did not inform his probation officer, Tomeka Hodges. 

She called Hodges to the stand. Hodges wore a gun in her holster and her badge on a chain around her neck. She recounted that Pilgrim missed his appointment with her on July 9. She went to his home on July 18 to check on him, learned that he no longer lived there, and reported him as absconding — the legal term for Pilgrim’s probation violation.

Then Edwards questioned Hodges: Had she looked into where Pilgrim worked? Had she contacted relatives in his file? Edwards, a petite woman with short blonde hair, spoke so closely to the microphone that when she asked the judge for a moment to collect her thoughts, her shallow breaths echoed in the near-empty room. 

Edwards contended that Pilgrim left his boarding house due to theft. When he found out that he had been charged with a probation violation, he turned himself in on July 30, according to Edwards.

“That’s wrong,” Hodges interjected. “I looked it up, and he didn’t.”

“So you’re suggesting the date on [his paperwork] is incorrect?” Edwards said.

“He possibly dated it wrong. He turned himself in on the 2nd,” Hodges said, as Pilgrim shook his head.

Edwards called Pilgrim to the stand. As he raised his hand to take the oath, he tripped on the wheels of a chair and stumbled. A chorus of “woah” rose from the lawyers and court staff. 

“Hold on there, get your bearings together,” Rhinehart said with a chuckle.  “We don’t need an accident.” 

Pilgrim sat down and cleared his throat, as Edwards asked him to introduce himself to the court. When he spoke into the microphone, the volume startled him and he recoiled. Edwards repeated the question and tried again. 

As he answered, Pilgrim often mumbled. He seemed unsure of himself and he rambled. Twice, Edwards cut him off. 

“Absconding to me is like, I’m running. Like I’m not letting anyone know, not even my mom, my sister, my brother, nobody knows,” he said. “That is definitely absconding, or what I think it is.” 

He said that he turned himself in on July 30. Then, he reconsidered, searching Rhinehart’s face as he spoke.

“I think it was the 30th,” Pilgrim said. “[Hodges] said it was the 2nd, but I don’t think it was the 2nd. It could have been, but I don’t think it was. I think it was on the 30th.” 

After Tucker questioned him, Edwards began her closing statement: “I would contend that Mr. Pilgrim did not willfully abscond his probation. To be an absconder you must—” 

A faint ring tone of Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Thru The Phone” interrupted her. Pilgrim sheepishly dug through his pockets and pulled out a red phone. The deputy walked over, silenced it, and placed it by the clerk’s desk. 

Rhinehart rubbed her eyes, and then her temples. Nearly an hour had passed. Because Pilgrim kept in contact with Hodges after he turned himself in, Rhinehart kept him on probation.

But her ruling still didn’t end the case: she ordered a check in for Pilgrim in late November. He will return to court again. 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘I love where I stay.’

It’s a Monday morning in Durham County’s eviction court, and Joseph McMoil’s home of four years is on the line. 

McMoil, a stout 51-year-old man, shuffles to the witness stand. Dressed in a faded navy-blue T-shirt and old jeans, he settles into a swivel chair and gazes out at the smattering of people in the courtroom. 

“Mr. McMoil, what do you want me to consider as it relates to your case?” Judge Shamieka Rhinehart asks. 

For eviction cases in North Carolina, defendants are not guaranteed counsel, so McMoil represents, and testifies for, himself. 

Um … um … the fact that the times that I missed the rent,” McMoil mutters into the microphone. “During that time, I wasn’t receiving as much of a gross amount of money as I usually do. Because of my work.” 

When McMoil’s employer, a retirement home in Durham, reduced his hours early on in the pandemic, his income shrank to $1,800 a month, according to court documents. From April to September 2020, he couldn’t pay the $868 monthly rent for his apartment on Campus Walk Avenue. 

Though McMoil has paid his monthly rent since September 2020, he still owes $10,104.36 in accumulated rent and late fees, according to court documents.

Morreene LLC, the company that owns the apartment, wants an order for possession of the property. 

McMoil’s plight isn’t unique. With the pandemic causing layoffs and diminished hours throughout Durham County, many tenants have struggled to pay rent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium ended in late August, meaning many more Durham residents could face eviction in the coming months. 

Durham Social Services  (DSS) offers rental assistance, and Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm, helps residents navigate the court system. But eligibility for rental assistance depends on earnings: residents can qualify only if they make less than 80% of the county’s Area Median Income, which is $48,400.  

McMoil says he doesn’t qualify now that his income has returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

“Have you thought about applying for any of the [COVID-19] assistance that’s available?” asks Charles Carpenter, a tall, thin attorney representing Morreene LLC. 

“I’ve called all those numbers,” McMoil says, exasperated. “I’ve tried, yes. They are looking into what I make presently and [the fact] that I’m doing well now.” 

Carpenter pauses. “But you do acknowledge that there still are a number of months of rent that remain unpaid?” 

Yes,” McMoil says. “I’ve stayed at this place for a long time. Before [COVID-19], I paid every time. I was a good outstanding resident.”

“We don’t doubt that, Mr. McMoil,” Carpenter says. His shoulders droop. He appears to hold no enthusiasm for evicting McMoil.  

“I was a very good resident before this happened,” McMoil says, his voice growing desperate. “So if you make it where I pay a little extra and catch up or come to an agreement where I can improve it, I would very much like to stay. I love where I stay.”

A long silence hangs over the courtroom. Rhinehart glances back and forth between Carpenter and McMoil. 

Anybody want to be heard?” she says, her chin resting on her hand, exhaustion in her voice. 

Just briefly, Your Honor,” Carpenter says. “We certainly feel for Mr. McMoil. I will point out, to his benefit, that when we proceed, that doesn’t cut off his avenue of discussion with us about the possibility of working something out.” 

Suddenly, the mood in the courtroom shifts. Despite McMoil’s testimony about his failed attempts to qualify for DSS rental assistance, Rhinehart sits up in her seat and asks a lawyer to find the phone number for the program. Various attorneys talk over one another, trying to find the contact information. 

“Mr. McMoil, we’re trying to get you some help, OK?” the judge calls out amid the hubbub.

When the commotion dies down, Rhinehart issues her judgment: “Mr. McMoil, it is unfortunate that I have to grant possession to the claimant. They met their burden.” 

“However,” she quickly adds, “you did hear Mr. Carpenter state that although I have entered a judgment, that they may still be willing to work with you.” 

Judge Rhinehart recommends that McMoil go immediately to the third floor to find DSS representatives and assigns someone to escort him there. 

McMoil walks slowly down the aisle, a gloomy look on his face. He has lost his home for now, but maybe there’s still a chance to save it. 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Say his name.’

Traffic court is full. People sit chin in hand, eyelids heavy. Some stomp out of the courtroom, then return a few minutes later. Others grimace, checking their watches and rolling their eyes. And some are not so silent: “What the f—, bruh. I got places to be.” 

It is a recent Wednesday at the Durham County Courthouse, and even Judge Pat Evans wants to get a move on. She sits at the bench in her robe with her long black hair, gray at the roots, pulled tight in a ponytail. She sticks to a script: call a name, hear a case, make a ruling, repeat. 

The defendants don’t stick to the same script. They bring the wrong papers, they go to the wrong place, and they come late, or not at all.

Of those who make it, most accept blame for their tickets, pay a fine, and get out. Few contest their citations, and fewer win.

On this day, Anthony Rashad Floyd chose to be one of the few. And soon, the courtroom would understand why.

Floyd, a Durham resident, arrives at court on time in a yellow polo shirt, black jeans and loafers. He appears to be in his 40s. As he waits in the gallery, yellow light reflects off his diamond earrings.

Three months ago, Floyd was driving down route 70 on his way to JJ Fish & Chicken in Durham for an early dinner. It was 5 p.m. and there was heavy traffic. “Bumper to bumper,” he said. 

On this much, Floyd and the deputy who cited him agree. Beyond that, their stories conflict.

On the stand, Floyd says when his turn came, he put on his blinker and moved into the center lane. Then he says he decided he could wait to eat, so he signaled and merged back out to head home. That’s when Deputy T. Hatch pulled him over. 

“You gotta be kidding,” says a voice in the courtroom as Floyd tells his story. “Can’t believe he took this to trial.”

Center lane violations rarely make it to court. Most people prefer a small fine to a morning in traffic court. Floyd is not most people. 

“It’s about principle,” Floyd said in an interview. “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I am not gonna let an officer take advantage of me like I know they do.”

In May 2020, Floyd’s first cousin was murdered in a Minneapolis street by a police officer who pinned him to the ground for more than nine and a half minutes until he stopped breathing. This cousin’s name was George Floyd.

When Anthony Floyd announces this to the court, those listening in the gallery don’t believe him. Some laugh.

“Yeah, right,” says a voice in the back.

Others remain quiet, unsure how to react. 

Anthony says that he and George were “tight.” After George’s death, Anthony went to marches with family and yelled “say his name” with a fist in the air. He has photos of himself the day before the funeral standing with George’s attorney, Al Sharpton, and Joe Biden. 

He’s still in disbelief about his cousin’s death. He’s also more uneasy around police. When Hatch pulled him over, Floyd’s face got hot. He didn’t know why he was being stopped. Hatch told him he didn’t signal when he switched lanes. Floyd replied that he did, and he would fight this in court.

“That’s your right,” Hatch said before returning to his patrol car. 

Floyd knows his rights.

Aside from a speeding ticket at 16, Floyd’s never been in trouble with the law.

“I was on point with everything,” he said in court. “So as far as being behind the wheel, I made sure that at all times, especially since what happened to my cousin, that I follow all the rules. That’s how I know for a fact I used my turn signal. The dashcam footage will show that. Where is the dashcam footage?”

He asks this question 12 times in court. No one gives a clear answer. 

“That’s a whole process,” Hatch says.

At George Floyd’s trial, video was a star witness. Jurors watched film from cell phones, body cams, dash cams, and surveillance cams. Video footage brought justice for George. Anthony wants it to do the same for him, but Hatch doesn’t want to deal with the “process.” It seems that Evans doesn’t either.

Once Hatch and Anthony are done testifying, she rules. 

“Your cousin has nothing to do with this matter,” she says. “The citation stands.”

Anthony stays still for a moment. He turns to look at the people in the gallery behind him, but they avoid eye contact. He looks back at the judge, but she’s moved on. 

When Anthony stands and heads out of the courtroom, people turn their heads to watch him leave. He walks down the hall outside alone, mumbling to himself. 

He talks about the dash cam footage. He wonders if he needs to come back to court. He realizes he forgot to mention the van in front of him that did the same thing. He doesn’t know if he owes or what he owes or how to pay. 

He says he does know he did nothing wrong. He knows that he fought for justice. 

“And it felt good.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that Anthony Rashad Floyd met Joe Biden at George Floyd’s funeral.  They actually met the day before the funeral, which Biden did not attend in person.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘This is not a swastika. This is the opposite.’

 

Judge Michael O’Foghludha tried to calm the defendant who wore the mask with the backwards swastika.

“Don’t get upset,” the judge said in soothing tones, as they talked over each other. “Don’t get upset. Nothing bad will happen unless you get upset.”

“I hope President Trump come back in power, to change all that’s happening here to our advantage,” the defendant, Murphy Stephens Wamala, replied.

Among the courtroom’s few onlookers, two public defenders and three men in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits all stared with interest.

Courthouses are full of characters — the inveterate case watcher; the wily, enigmatic defendant; the salt-of-the-earth judge. But even by Durham County Courthouse standards, Wamala was among the most disturbing of those who made an appearance on Sept. 21. 

Wamala, 52, is Black, but he claims that “there was no slavery” and that “Hitler helped build this country.”

He was in court for a parole violation. On Sept. 18, after he failed to show up to a scheduled hearing, police arrested him and “beat my ass almost to death,” he said in an interview. 

Three days later, he came to court for the hearing to declare what kind of legal representation he’d have.

Dressed in a camouflage hunting jacket and matching pants, Wamala arrived for his hearing just before 10 o’clock. In the vestibule between Courtroom 7D and the hallway, he spoke to a deputy for several minutes.

“[The deputy] asked, ‘What are you here for? What’s your name?’” said Wamala, who installs and maintains automatic car washes for a living. “I said, ‘What does that have to do with you?’”

The deputy told Wamala to wait in the hall, where he remained for over an hour.

Wamala’s probation violation came during the two years of freedom he’s been granted before serving a 12- to 24-month prison sentence. This sentence stems from a July 2020 incident in which Wamala struck and injured another driver, then drove away – all while his license was suspended.

Wamala’s rap sheet is full of other traffic violations. He’s received two driving while impaired (DWI) convictions: one in Chatham County in 2012 and one in Durham County in 2019. He pleaded guilty in 2012 to driving with a revoked license. And he was found responsible in 2018 for driving with an expired license and running a stop sign.

Wamala has also had numerous traffic charges dismissed in Durham County, including two DWI charges, two charges of driving with an altered tag or vehicle registration, and one charge each of driving without insurance, registration or a valid license. All since 2012.

 But why did Wamala choose to Sharpie a swastika onto his white facemask before coming to court? He laughed when asked.

“This is not a swastika,” he said. “This is the opposite.” 

A counterclockwise swastika, he explained, was a Roman symbol for freedom. He likes displaying it so that he can see how many people are ignorant about the difference between this version and a clockwise swastika.

Even so, Wamala — whose parents are from Uganda and Nigeria and who grew up in Sweden — expressed respect for Adolf Hitler and defended the Holocaust. While waiting in the hall, Wamala also offered other political views at length and with little prompting. He applauded those who stormed the U.S. Capitol in January, sang the praises of British imperialism, and called the “American Negro” corrupt and violent. Most of his opinions defied historical facts. 

Wamala, who spoke in a loud voice,  threw his whole body into his speech — once sliding to the far side of the hallway bench to illustrate a point, and another time pulling up a sleeve to show injuries allegedly left by police officers. He ping-ponged from topic to topic, talking almost nonstop.

One rare silence fell when Wamala spent several seconds watching a woman walk past on her way to court. Dressed in unassuming street clothes – skinny jeans and a T-shirt – she returned his stare.

At another point, Wamala also gave a friendly greeting to a passing man, who nodded back.

The deputy called Wamala into the courtroom around 11:15 a.m. He entered and stood at the center of the room, facing Judge O’Foghludha with his hands behind his back. An air of curiosity and caution hung in the room.

“Is there anything I have to say to the court?” Wamala said.

The judge informed him he just needed to decide on his legal representation. He asked if Wamala wanted Dan Meier, a public defender, to represent him.

“Probably,” Wamala said. 

The deputy approached Wamala with a clipboard holding a form, and Wamala sat down to fill it out with his help. After a few minutes, the two retreated to the vestibule. 

They stood facing each other, looking at the forms: the man in the reversed swastika face mask, toe-to-toe with justice.

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘I used to be your neighbor?’

Outside the closed doors of Courtroom 6A one recent Tuesday morning, 24 potential jurors waited in a line, single file. They shared anxious glances with the people in front of and behind them as they fiddled with straps on their purses and messenger bags. 

When a clerk thrust the doors open at 10:30 a.m., the jurors shuffled in. One man in a gray-and- cream striped button-down shirt walked with a limp. Another woman wearing a bright floral shirt held a cane in one hand and a book in the other. None seemed eager to enter. 

Jury selection is a meticulous, tedious and, at times, impersonal process — strangers are brought together in the Durham County Courthouse and, one by one, quickly questioned about their life experiences as lawyers try to decide whether they will be fair and impartial. 

But, as soon became clear on this day, this same questioning can also be tricky when jurors and attorneys are all members of the same community. Sometimes, the process can even reveal unexpected connections.

Inside the courtroom, the group sat socially distanced — six in the jury box, which usually seats 12, while the rest filled the benches. Anyone not affiliated with the trial stood outside the courtroom until there was a seat available. 

The plaintiff, Ahmed Chahdi, sat upright next to his attorney, Robert Perry. In a white short-sleeve button-up shirt, Chahdi was a sharp contrast to defendant Jocelyn Mack, who wore a purple dress under a cheetah print fur coat. 

The two were in civil court for an incident that happened six years ago. Mack’s car collided with the wall of a convenience store where Chahdi worked as a cashier, according to Perry. Shelves fell on Chahdi and injured him. Now, Chahdi has sued Mack and another person for punitive damages. 

 When it was time for pretrial questioning, jury clerks passed sheets of questions to the attorneys.

“Does anyone know Judge [James] Hill? Anyone know any of the attorneys?” Perry rumbled, as he swiveled his chair to face the jurors, leaned back and crossed his legs. He held his papers in one hand and a pen in the other. 

Karen Briggs, in the second row of benches, slowly raised her hand. She wore jeans and a navy cable-knit sweater that matched the color of her mask. 

“You used to be my neighbor,” she said quietly. 

“I used to be your neighbor?” Perry repeated. Briggs nodded. 

“And I work with your wife,” Briggs added.  “She substitutes at my school.” 

Perry asked where she taught. He confirmed his wife works at the same school. 

But Briggs wasn’t finished: “And I taught your grandson.”

The room erupted into laughter. 

“All right, you did everything right then,” he responded, chuckling. 

Perry then asked if Briggs, as a juror, could be “fair and impartial.”

“I’ll be honest, I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s hard to separate knowing someone for me.” 

Perry deferred to the judge. “Ma’am, I think you can be fair, but I don’t want to push you into a compromising situation,” Hill said, and excused her from the case. She hurried from the room. 

Perry continued questioning the jurors, splitting his attention between the six in the jury box and the six on the benches. Mack often turned her head around to look at the jurors as they answered, but Chahdi did not.

Perry asked if anyone had sued someone or been sued. One man in the box, David Efird, raised his hand. Efird explained that as a partner at the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, he had sued people on behalf of his clients. 

The next topic was car accidents — if anyone had been in one, caused one or knew someone who had been involved in one. And, Perry asked, had anyone ever experienced neck injuries or seen a chiropractor. 

The jurors were quiet and monotonous, but never annoyed. No heavy sighs or impatient whispers. Some even offered up details, like the date of a crash or where their chiropractor was located. 

After an hour, though, only 15 prospective jurors remained, and some grew restless. One man in the box rubbed his head and shifted around in his seat. A woman on a bench picked at her nails. Even Judge Hill alternated between staring into the benches and typing at his desktop computer, the glare of the screen reflecting on his face shield. 

Then, Macon Patton was called by the clerks to replace Jennifer Cameron, who could not serve on a jury in Durham County because she lives in Orange County. Patton rattled off responses to Perry’s previous questions. On his last answer, he pointed at Efird. 

“My wife works in the same firm as this lawyer here,” Patton said. 

“Do you know this man?” Perry asked again and motioned to Efird.

“I do not,” Patton said, shaking his head. 

“But I do know his wife,” Efird jumped in, and the three men chuckled. Neither attorney objected to Patton sitting on the jury as scattered, tired laughs bounced around the courtroom. 

Efird added: “It’s good to meet you.” 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘El Sueño Americano’

Fifteen years ago, Edelmar Arnoldo Borrayes Cifuentes immigrated from Guatemala to Cary, North Carolina. He got a job in construction, found a house, and made friends in his local Latino community. What he did not do was learn much, if any, English.

On this day, Cifuentes sits in a courtroom on the sixth floor of the Durham County Courthouse. He wears a black button down shirt with tiny white polka dots, jeans held up by a leather belt and a navy cloth mask. He appears to be in his 40s and has spiky black hair, hardened with gel. He’s short, shorter than his attorney, Aneta Yordanova Paval, who sits before him in the gallery in a maxi skirt and gray sweater. 

He’s here to fight for sole custody of his son, in a language he doesn’t understand, and the translator’s late.

A decade ago, attorneys had to formally request an interpreter weeks in advance. But a surge in demand in recent years prompted the courthouse to develop a better system. 

“Now, it’s like calling an Uber,” said trial court administrator Deneen Barrier. At least in theory.

Cifuentes is texting on his phone when Judge Amanda L. Maris calls his case. 

When he hears his name, he stands, shoves his phone in his jean pocket, and makes his way to the table at the front of the room. His son’s mother, who is supposed to be representing herself, is not present. In fact, she’s in Guatemala. 

As Cifuentes takes his seat, the translator bursts through the double doors and scurries over to his side. She wears a light blue dress and clutches a clipboard to her chest. Paval, relieved, calls Cifuentes to the witness stand. 

He walks cautiously to the front of the courtroom. 

“Please place your left hand on the Bible and raise your right,” the court clerk says, as though she’s said it thousands of times. (She has.)

Cifuentes, though, doesn’t know this string of words. But he sees a Bible in front of him and notices the bailiff motioning toward it, so he takes a guess as to what he should do: He picks it up with both hands.

The bailiff dashes over and grabs the book while the translator frantically whispers to Cifuentes, who runs a nervous hand through his shiny hair. He guessed wrong.

Once the bailiff replaces the Bible, and Cifuentes’ attorney helps to properly swear him in, Paval begins asking questions.

The translator jots furiously on her clipboard as Paval speaks, relaying sentences to Cifuentes before Paval has finished them. Amid the resulting overlap in voices, Cifuentes doesn’t know where to look. He settles for a spot on the gray carpet between the two women. 

Via a complicated game of telephone, the court learns that Cifuentes grew up in Guatemala. There he met his wife, Emilia Gomez Alvarado, and had his son, Bryan, whom he took care of until the boy was three. Then Cifuentes decided to fly to the United States solo to chase “El Sueño Americano.” The American Dream.

His family was supposed to join him after he built a life for the three of them. But, things didn’t go according to plan. In Guatemala, Alvarado neglected Bryan and left him at the age of 10.

Cifuentes describes the dangers his son had to face alone — the crime, the extortion, the gangs — in a raw, shaky tone. The translator repeats his message word for word, but her scripted monotone doesn’t quite capture the sorrow. 

This past June, when Bryan, who turns 18 in October, was finally able to leave Guatemala, Cifuentes saw his son for the first time in 15 years. He moved Bryan into his home, registered him for a local school, and now he wants custody over him. 

Paval is satisfied with her client’s testimony.

“No further questions, Your Honor,” she says.

“Okay, Mr. Cifuentes, you may step down,” Judge Maris replies.

There’s a moment of stillness while the translator relays the message. When Cifuentes walks back to the table, she follows behind him like a dutiful shadow.  

Then the telephone game resumes as Judge Maris states her ruling. Cifuentes stares at her, arms crossed over his chest. He watches her lips move as she says “I hereby grant sole legal and physical custody of the minor child, Bryan Gomez, to Mr. Cifuentes.”

Eyes in the sparsely filled gallery jump over to Cifuentes, expecting celebration. But he remains still. The translator has fallen behind, and she’s not yet repeated the ruling. Cifuentes is the last in the room to learn that he’s won the case. 

When he does, the moment for a dramatic reaction has passed. He stands, gives a gracious nod to the judge and heads out of the courtroom, leaving his shadow behind.

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Stuff we have to deal with every day’

At 8:53 a.m., a short, ragged line forms on the plaza of the Durham County Courthouse. Retractable ropes funnel arrivals toward the single entrance — a set of heavy metal doors reinforced with bolt-like cylinders. Three sheriff deputies stand guard on this sunny morning holding clipboards stacked with the day’s docket.

To reduce potential COVID-19 exposures, the deputies limit entry. On the docket? In. Victim? In. Witness? Wait outside until the judge calls your case.

Strict COVID-19 policies have remained consistent throughout the pandemic, reports Corporal Denon Gray, one of the three deputies who regularly guard the doors. Masks are required, and deputies conduct temperature checks. One by one, those in line are either waved through or turned away. 

We often imagine courtrooms, with their stately grandeur and mahogany benches, as the backdrop for our legal system’s most fraught moments. But the drama begins at these doors, through which every witness and relative, victim and offender,  guilty and innocent, pass each day. “Any issues out in the neighborhood or in the streets,’’ Gray says, “sooner or later it will make its way here.”

The ritual begins as usual. 

“What are you here for today?” says Deputy James Zagardo to the next person in line. “What’s your last name?”

 He pages through the docket to find the name.

And finally: “Have you been sick or around anyone with COVID-19 in the last two weeks?” 

A woman’s scream pierces the air.  

Gray pauses and peers past the concrete column in search of the source. After a moment of quiet, the interrogations rev up again. Then another angry scream, now clearly coming from a middle-aged woman emerging from the courthouse. 

Her bright purple hair only makes her more conspicuous as she pushes a shimmery purple walker out of the building. With a shout, she summons an older woman seated quietly on the bench outside.

“I’m going home!” she yells at the older woman standing a few feet in front of her. “Everything I own is ruined because of you!” 

In a rage, she throws items from her bag at the older woman’s feet. The older woman stands feebly, attempting to calm her purple-haired companion.

Those in the queue rubberneck momentarily, but the line quickly resumes its churn. “This is the stuff we have to deal with every day,” Gray says. 

Attorneys greet the deputies with a friendly nod and are whisked past, like courthouse VIPs skipping the bouncers. Some women click up in heels, others in biker shorts. One man swelters in a three-piece suit, while another dons a Grateful Dead T-shirt. 

At 9:10 a.m., two young men approach the deputies. The first, who is there to appear in court, wears a white polo tucked into torn black jeans. His companion, not attempting to impress, wears a looser green shirt with old blue jeans. 

After quietly stating his business to Zagardo, the man in white moves toward the doors. The man in green, meanwhile, waits outside. 

As the man in white is nearly through the door, Zagardo shouts, “Do you think you are going to be getting incarcerated [today]?”

The words fall with a thud. 

The man in white shrugs: “They said it was a possibility.”

The three men stand frozen. Their simple bureaucratic encounter has quickly become a farewell. 

Zagardo reassures the man in white that he will have the opportunity to contact his friend again. The deputy keeps looking back and forth between the two.

The friends stare at each other, silent. Zagardo offers, “I mean, if you want to give him property now just in case…” 

After pondering for a moment, the man in white utters a quiet, “No.”  

These doors will see no emotional goodbye today. 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘I really want to burn this…building down’

On a sunny September morning, the picture window near Courtroom 4D is framed by blue sky. It’s around 9:10 a.m. in the Durham County Courthouse and about five people mill about the corridor. A defendant scrolls through his emails and mutters nervously, as bursts of R&B music echo from someone else’s cell phone. Lawyers scold their clients: “Don’t lie to me.”

By 10:30 a.m., the people in the hallway have had their cases heard. But Tyi’sean Matthews, now in the courtroom, still waits. 

Finally, he walks out. The slim 21-year-old in a blue-and-green plaid shirt and dark pants shouts to no one in particular, “I really want to burn this f—ing building down, and it’d be easy.”

Then he looks at the ground, shoulders hunched, eyes cast downward.

A wide-eyed bailiff swiftly emerges behind him. Positioned between the courtroom door and Matthews, the bailiff gently and repeatedly explains that his case will be heard when his public defender, Rebekka Olsen, finishes her business upstairs in Superior Court. 

Matthews’ nearly 90-minute wait pales in comparison to the year and half his case has been stalled in Durham’s legal system. The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the already-busy Durham County Courthouse, forcing those caught up in the system to put their lives on hold. The young man just wants to get home to his dogs. 

To an unconvinced Matthews, the bailiff further explains that the public defender will be coming any moment now.  Under the threat of being charged with failure to appear if he leaves, Matthews resigns to roaming down the hallway.

He holds his phone as he walks, looking into the screen. He shouts again, threatening to  “blow up downtown Durham.” 

Matthews returns to the courtroom, phone still in hand. He tells the person on the other end that he is “sitting here doing nothing.” A bailiff approaches, and he hangs up. Then District Court Judge Amanda Maris looks over the near-empty courtroom and asks about the matter involving “the gentleman in plaid.” 

Olsen walks in shortly after. Judge Maris greets them with “Good morning,” as Matthews stands, now silently composed. His head hangs so far forward that his short locks obscure his face.

In his initial outburst, Matthews, who faces charges for larceny of a firearm and breaking or entering a motor vehicle, claimed that he’d already made seven appearances related to the case. Judge Maris says it’s unclear why, but the court file shows his case has been postponed 10 times.

Later, in response to questions about Matthews’ case, Olsen does not say whether her client knew she would be delayed this morning.  In an email, she does stress that she has been to court with him twice — in late February and again today.

In the courtroom, Assistant District Attorney Andrew House says that his office has not assigned a prosecutor to Matthews’ case nor subpoenaed the relevant witness. Judge Maris describes the lack of progress in the case as “unacceptable.”

The prosecution and defense settle on a day to convene again. “It will be the last court date,” Judge Maris promises Matthews.

Her assurances bring him little comfort.

“I really don’t care,” Matthews says a few minutes later, outside the courthouse.  “They could have just thrown me in jail for 45 days….The judge couldn’t tell me sh– about nothing, and she’s supposed to be the top person in the building….I could just go disappear on you stupid motherf—ers, and y’all never see me again.” 

 Then he rides away on his skateboard. 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Anything anybody want to say?’

The sound of metal leg cuffs pierced the hum of shuffled papers and creaky benches as Juan Gomez entered Courtroom 5A. For the half-hour Gomez was there, this was the most noise he made. In a room where words can shape one’s fate, he sat in silence, awaiting his own. 

In a muted red Durham County Jail jumpsuit, he took his seat in the front. Then, all eyes shifted back to Judge Nancy Gordon as she continued down the docket of thirteen domestic violence cases on Aug. 30.

Gomez, a 32-year-old with shoulder-length black hair, stared at the floor and waited for his name to be called. 

He was in District Court for assaulting a woman in late January. He failed to appear in court five times prior, according to Durham County Courthouse records. 

Yet Gomez found himself in the courtroom after a separate arrest in Rowan County in May put him in custody. He then spent 110 days in Durham County Jail. Now, he hoped Judge Gordon would accept his plea bargain. 

A few minutes before Gomez’s case began, two women entered the courtroom to watch his fate unfold. They came to support Gomez, according to his public defender Cassandra Tilley. 

Courtrooms are known for their drama, in part due to their iconic sounds — a witness’s oath, a jury’s verdict, the bang of a gavel. But sometimes, spoken word falls aside and silent communication takes center stage. 

This was the case for Gomez and the two women who sat in the last row of benches. Unable to mouth a greeting through their masks and seated too far away for Gomez to hear, they relied on gestures and facial expressions. 

The younger of the two locked eyes with Gomez and her breath hitched. She brought a hand to her mask, tilted her head sadly and blew him a kiss. Gomez lifted both hands as far as his cuffs would let him and waved sheepishly. 

The three of them waited as Judge Gordon finished other cases, glancing at each other from time to time.

The younger woman picked at a scab on her right hand. The older woman clenched her hands together. Judge Gordon finally called Gomez, their anxiety palpable.

The case moved quickly, as both sides looked to settle the matter. 

Although Jordan Childress, the victim, sat behind her attorney Michael Wilcox, she too, was silent. 

“Her only condition is that he not assault, threaten, harass, intimidate or interfere with her peaceful living,” said Wilcox, assistant district attorney in Durham County. Speaking on behalf of Childress,  he consented to the plea.

From a back corner of the room, the two women craned their necks and peered across in an attempt to catch a glimpse of Childress. Unsuccessful, they leaned back. One crossed her arms over her chest. The other sighed and returned to picking her scab. 

“Are you asking that he stay away from you?” Judge Gordon directed to Childress, her amplified voice cutting through the courtroom’s white noise. 

“No, not necessarily, I just…” Childress trailed off. 

“You just want him to not assault you,” Judge Gordon interjected.  

“Yeah, that’s fine,” she mumbled, as the judge asked her to stand up.  

In a white tank top, with an oversized black purse on her shoulder, Childress looked straight ahead at Judge Gordon, who deliberated silently. Gomez watched her from his corner. The two women glanced back and forth between them.

“Anything anybody want to say?” Judge Gordon snapped, but neither Gomez nor Childress said a word. 

Instead, Tilley spoke up. She asked the court to accept the plea and remit Gomez’s fines. He doesn’t anticipate finding a job upon release and hasn’t made any money in the last three months in jail. In short, he couldn’t afford Tilley’s services. 

“I’ll accept the plea, I’ll remit the money,” Judge Gordon said, with the begrudging tone of someone dissatisfied with the choices presented. 

If she hadn’t accepted the plea, Gomez would only face another 40 days in jail. The maximum punishment for assault on a female in North Carolina is 150 days, and he already served 110.

“Don’t assault her again,” she warned Gomez. Turning to Childress, she advised, “And you need to be smart.” 

The two women still held their breath, as Judge Gordon called the next name on the docket. The case was over, but their conversation with Gomez was not – he waved, and the younger woman placed her right hand over her heart in response. He rubbed his eyes and looked back at the floor.