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The life cycle of a sexual assault evidence kit

It starts when the emergency room door opens.

A victim walks in. She may have been sexually assaulted an hour ago or a day ago, but now, she’s decided to see a doctor. She might walk in with a friend or a parent, or she might sit alone and wait for the sexual assault nurse examiner to arrive.

“I just introduce myself at the beginning,” says Molly Chadbourne, a former sexual assault nurse examiner in Durham who currently trains other nurses. “I explain who I am and why I’m there to talk with them. Then, I ask them what they want. Do they want a kit?”

This is where a sexual assault kit begins. Its life cycle may last months, or even years.

The nurse ushers the victim into a small hospital room where they have privacy. Chadbourne likes to start with the easier questions: “What’s your medical history? What types of medicine do you take?” Then, she’ll ask the harder question. “Can you tell me what happened to you?”

The nurse listens, letting the victim take breaks and reminding her that it’s okay to tell her story imperfectly.

“We know that some people aren’t going to remember everything right away, and they might not remember it linearly,” Chadbourne says. “We have to give people permission to start talking about whatever they can, even if it’s not at the beginning.”

Then, the nurse starts to assemble the kit, a small white cardboard box with “Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit” printed on the front. 

The nurse starts collecting “known” samples, or the victim’s DNA. She’ll gently swab around the victim’s cheeks, gums, and lips. She’ll ask the victim to take off her underwear and seal it in a bag labeled “Underpants”. She’ll pluck exactly 50 hairs out of the victim’s head and then comb through her pubic hair, securing any hairs that fall off into a small envelope. 

Then the nurse collects “unknown” samples, which could include the assailant’s DNA. The nurse will swab any place on the body where the victim says she was assaulted. “It’s anywhere that was licked, bit, or touched by the assailant,” Chadbourne says.

She says “anything that’s on their body might be relevant”. Victims and nurses alike understand that the victim’s body is a crime scene.

The nurse takes photos of the woman, documenting any cuts, scrapes, or bruises. “I offer to let people look at the pictures,” Chadbourne says. “I try to give them as much control over the process as possible.” At any point, she notes, a victim can stop the kit collection.

After two hours, the nurse has packed away dozens of cotton swabs, photographs of injuries, and envelopes of hair into the sexual assault kit. She closes the lid of the white cardboard box and places it in storage, where the kit waits for law enforcement to come pick it up the next morning.

***

When the kit arrives at the police department, an officer will take a first look. That officer might notice if the kit is connected to a consent case, a case in which the victim and the perpetrator both agree that they had sex, but disagree on whether it was consensual. Three years ago, a consent kit would get put back on the evidence shelves at the police department instead of getting tested. It could stay there for over 30 years.

“When I was seeing patients, I couldn’t say to them, ‘Your kit will never get tested, because you know the person that assaulted you,’” Chadbourne says. “Doing this really invasive process and knowing in the back of your mind that this kit will probably never be tested… it’s a really hard pill to swallow.”

But today, with the statewide push to send all kits to the State Crime Lab, that kit won’t sit on an evidence shelf if it doesn’t meet testing requirements. Instead, an officer will log it into the North Carolina State Crime Lab’s database. A technician at the lab will accept the kit, and the officer will drive it to Raleigh, where the State Crime Lab is located.

“We place the kit into a vault until it’s time to be worked,” says Jody West, forensic sciences manager at the State Crime Lab. “Then we open it up, and start with inventory.”

Every sexual assault kit is a little different “It’s a box, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all box,” according to Chadbourne and the State Crime Lab takes note of every swab, photo, and hair inside.

A lab technician first takes a tiny portion of the swab and uses a chemical to tease out the DNA from its cotton. “It’s like cracking open an egg and removing the yolk,” West explains.

Lab technicians then use a machine to separate the yolk — human DNA — from any other type of genetic material. In sexual assault cases, they’re usually looking for male DNA. “This is the decision point,” West says. “If we determine there’s not enough male DNA, we’ll stop.”

If the kit moves ahead, it goes through amplification, or copying the yolk. The assailant’s DNA fragments are heated and cycled through a hefty gray machine — in just thirty cycles, a billion copies of that DNA are made.

The last step is electrophoresis, or separating the yolk. Analysts use an electric field to detach different fragments of DNA. The result is a complete DNA profile. “It looks a lot like a heartbeat,” West says.

After hours in the emergency room, days with law enforcement and up to five weeks at the lab, this is what a completed sexual assault kit looks like: A series of peaks on a computer screen.

Those peaks the DNA profile of the assailant will be entered into a database of millions of offenders across the country. A computer will scan each offender’s profile, checking for a perfect match. If the all of the peaks line up, the computer spits out a name. Then, it’s up to the police to investigate the sexual assault.

That is the life cycle of one sexual assault kit. To clear the backlog of 15,160, North Carolina has thousands more to go.

“Most people, if they’ve ever heard of a rape kit before, it’s from watching Law and Order SVU,” Chadbourne says. “They think it gets solved in 60 minutes. The truth is, it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.”

A sexual assault evidence kit. Photo provided by Molly Chadbourne

Resources for survivors:

Durham Crisis Response Center

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: What is a sexual assault forensic exam?

North Carolina Sexual Assault Kit Tracking 

North Carolina Office for Victims of Crime: Crime compensation

Video surveillance: The hidden eye of the justice system

Video cameras captured two scenes from the convenience store on Alston Avenue in East Durham on the night of Jan. 9, 2018. 

In one, a little boy walks inside, his eyes on the prize. He flashes a mischievous smile, eager to get his hands on a Hostess “Donette” packet stacked neatly a few steps away. 

In the other scene, from outside the store, Noe Ruiz and Jerone Powell get into a fight. Powell exits with a stab wound, leaving Ruiz with a court date.

The two scenes captured by the store’s video system show how cameras have become unblinking spectators. They can capture, with incredible levels of detail, the banal routine of a convenience store just as they can reveal the crimes that occasionally occur there.

Daniel Meier, a prominent defense lawyer in Durham who represented Ruiz, says the convenience store footage is a reminder that video cameras are everywhere. Businesses, stores, and even renters and homeowner are recording everything.

“Cameras are dirt cheap now. It takes almost nothing to do it. People, acting out of a sense of paranoia, feel secure when a camera is watching.”

The implications of such surveillance are fuzzy, Meier said. Our private lives have been transformed into something more public.

But much of the footage is the seemingly dull routine of everyday life.

In the convenience store, the kid sees the rack with the doughnuts. Jackpot. He picks a 3-pack of the powdered pastry off the shelf and dashes down the aisle with his conquest. He runs straight into his mom, who snatches the stolen goodies out of his nubby hands. His once-triumphant grin transforms into a surly pout.

Jeb Dennis, a public defender at the Durham County Courthouse, said that the standards of evidence are higher now. Juries expect video evidence. If it’s not available, they want to know why.

“It’s called the CSI effect,” Dennis said. “Jurors, civilians, and people in general want more evidence now than what they expected 30 years ago.” People expect video evidence because they’ve seen it in so many TV shows.

Studies have shown that over 25% of human witnesses have false memories. Video eliminates that problem.

“We use it to our favor,” Meier said. Video footage can be definitive evidence of a criminal’s guilt.

Ruiz’s case at the convenience store is a powerful case study.

The video shows Ruiz and Powell emerge from behind a dumpster in the store’s parking lot, shouting at each other.

The fight turns physical, and the footage shows the faint outlines of a knife in Ruiz’s hand. Ruiz lunges and stabs Powell, who pushes him backwards. Ruiz lands on his behind, cigarette still in mouth.

Powell then walks into the convenience store, his hand placed lightly on the lower section of his potbelly. His face is stoic and unfazed. He grabs a few napkins, clots his wound, and walks out the door.

Meier said this footage was crucial in Ruiz’s case. Not only did it pin him to the scene of the crime, it also reduced his sentence. Powell’s demeanor inside the store proved the harm caused wasn’t so bad.

But video has its drawbacks.

“We’re basically a surveillance society.” Meier said. While privacy laws might protect citizens from being spied on by the government, it doesn’t stop people from recording each other. 

“In public places, there’s no legal expectation of privacy. The laws just haven’t caught up with technology,” he said. 

Video can capture and save even irrelevant information.

“Back in the day, you would see someone and then they’re gone. Now you have a video that can save for life the image of someone picking their nose,” he said.

This constant watchdog feature also can hit the limits of technological capacity.

“Often video just is not accessible because sometimes cases take years. Those gas stations can’t hold videos for years. That (video) is gone,” Dennis said.

But the attorneys say video is here to stay, capturing everyday life, plus the occasional crime.

Back in the store, the kid returns back to the Hostess rack. It’s his second try and he’s smarter this time. He hides the snack cakes in the fold of his shirt as he dodges his mother.

He slides across the store’s center aisle. He sticks the donut in his mouth, victorious.

No one even saw him.

A tale of two cities: Lessons for Durham about ShotSpotter

A gunshot goes off.  

In many neighborhoods, no one calls the police. 

But in more than 100 cities, the sound is picked up by audio sensors, and computers quickly triangulate the location of the sound. 

Meanwhile, in a room in California, audio experts sit behind several large monitors that are filled with red and green maps. They monitor the alerts from the sensors and, if they determine the sound was indeed gunfire, they quickly alert the local police. 

The whole process takes approximately 60 seconds, according to ShotSpotter, the company that sells the technology. That enables officers to respond quickly and – city officials hope – reduce the likelihood of injuries and further shootings.

In June, the Durham City Council voted down a measure to implement ShotSpotter, citing insufficient data about the service and other budgetary priorities. But after a spate of recent shootings, Council Member Mark Anthony Middleton is urging them to reconsider.

“Kids in Durham are being trained to jump in the bathtub when they hear gunfire,” he said. “They’re getting soldiering skills at eight or nine years old.” 

As Durham deliberates, Middleton and others can learn from the experiences of two North Carolina cities with very different experiences with ShotSpotter. In Charlotte, officials decided ShotSpotter wasn’t worth the money. But, in Wilmington, officials like the system so much they want to expand it.

Charlotte: “Closed circuit cameras and license plate readers are actually more effective”

In 2012, Charlotte had high hopes for ShotSpotter.

The city was about to host the Democratic National Convention and wanted to be prepared for potential gun violence.

Patrick Cannon, then the mayor pro tem, told the City Council that ShotSpotter was a smart investment.

“I know we don’t like talking about guns … but having a system for the long-term is something I believe is really important to this community,” he said.  

At the time, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department bought a contract covering two square miles in the center of downtown, only a fraction of the department’s 473-square mile jurisdiction. Cannon said the technology might make the city safer because of its ability to alert police officers in real-time.

But ShotSpotter didn’t live up to its promise. In 2016, the City decided to abandon its $160,000 contract with ShotSpotter. 

Police said ShotSpotter often didn’t result in arrests. Another problem: false alarms, which strained police time and resources.

Crystal Cody, Charlotte’s Public Safety Technology Director, said that ShotSpotter solved a problem that Charlotte didn’t have.

“The premise of the technology is to be alerted to gunfire in the absence of someone calling 911,” she said. “But, in our city, we’ve found that primarily citizens call 911. We are already on route to it, just about as soon as we get the information from ShotSpotter.” 

ShotSpotter wasn’t worth the investment, said Cody. The city canceled the contract.

“We have found that closed circuit cameras and license plate readers are actually more effective,” said Cody.

Wilmington: “You’ve got to start using 21st century technologies to address crime now”

Wilmington has had a much better experience. After using ShotSpotter for nearly nine years, the city recently signed a contract to expand services with the company. 

In Wilmington, ShotSpotter covers a six-mile radius. Officials used data to determine neighborhoods that had high incidents of gun violence, which decided the locations of the sensors. 

Deputy Police Chief Alejandra Sotelo said she’s pleased with the technology because it speeds up the process of dispatching police officers. 

When people call the police, it slows the process. A ShotSpotter alert can often be faster than a 911 call, which needs to go through a dispatcher  Even a one- or two-minute delay can mean life or death for victims of violent crime, Sotelo said. 

It’s so good, Sotelo said, that some people might trust the system a little too much.

 “One of the things we have noticed since we’ve implemented this technology is that people often don’t call 911, which is concerning. They think ShotSpotter will just pick it up,” she said.

Wilmington has seen a reduction in crime in the last few years. “Our overall violent crime numbers have gone down, and this year we’re proud of a record low,” said Sotelo. She thinks this might be correlated with the implementation of ShotSpotter. 

Sotelo said ShotSpotter doesn’t need to generate arrests in order to be effective. 

“We use it as a tool to get to the scene and gather evidence quicker. You still have to go through the investigative process” to make arrests, Sotelo said.

The Wilmington Police Department liked ShotSpotter so much the city has expanded its use. As of this month, it was the first in the nation to complete training for the ShotSpotter Missions tool, a data analytics program that forecasts crime and preemptively dispatches police.

“You’ve got to start using 21st century technologies to address crime now,“ she said.

Sotelo said she would like to see a system of cameras integrated with ShotSpotter. Video footage would help identify victims and suspects, something the current tool does not do. 

As for Durham, Sotelo recommends the city do its research. “I could tell you how great it is, and I do think it’s a great, but make sure you go to other cities. Come to Wilmington, see how it works and what officers think about it.”

Above, a screenshot of a ShotSpotter display. Photo from ShotSpotter

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York men charged in thefts from four Home Depot stores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Update: Security guard arrested in hotel shooting

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about Smoot being charged.

Durham police arrested a security guard in connection with a shooting at the HomeTowne Studios hotel on Highway 55 in South Durham on Aug. 23.

Reginald Smoot, 24, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, according to Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael. He served three days in the county jail before posting a $100,000 bond.

Michael said Smoot was employed as an unarmed security guard at the extended-stay hotel but was not on duty when the shooting happened.

According to a search warrant, witnesses told investigators the security guard shot Vincent Smith, 45, on the third floor of the hotel. Smith was found with a single gunshot wound in his left chest.  No information on his condition was available.

Before and during the shooting, Smith used his iPhone to record a fight with the guard, the warrant said. He began recording after the security guard pulled a gun on him, according to Smith.

Managers at the hotel declined to comment on the shooting. 

The HomeTowne Studios hotel, located in the 5000 block of Highway 55, has been the site of two other shootings this year. On August 9, a man was shot in the arm at the hotel. And in January, 28-year-old Wallace Hayes was found shot to death inside his room.

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.” 

Deberry says her reforms are starting to show results

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry says many people mistakenly believe all crimes are the same, that if “somebody pees in your yard, they’ll come back and kill you the next day.”

The reality, though, is that “somebody who pees in your yard usually has housing issues, substance abuse issues, all these other things that are harder to deal with if you have a criminal record.”

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters and editors from The 9th Street Journal on Sunday, the new DA said her goal is to prioritize prosecutions of violent crime but show more restraint about prosecuting people for lesser crimes. She has implemented a policy that no longer seeks cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Her goal is to avoid penalizing people who cannot afford to pay. 

Satana Deberry at a lunch with editors and reporters from The 9th Street Journal. | Photo by Cameron Beach

Deberry says her reforms are beginning to show results. She says she has slashed average jail stays from 19 days four years ago to about five days in her first six months in office. She also has expanded programs to bring together victims and defendants to help them move forward. 

A former defense attorney and housing advocate, Deberry is part of a wave of progressive prosecutors hoping to address mass incarceration and racial disparities in the halls of justice. Deberry says it’s important to consider the consequences of giving people a criminal record. 

“A criminal record is a huge barrier for people,” she said. “We want to think about when we create criminal records for people why we do and then focus our resources on the most violent crimes that are happening in Durham.”

Her first six months have brought a lot of turnover: about half of her office has been replaced since she beat incumbent Roger Echols. She said she interviewed everyone in the office and gave them all the chance to talk to her. Some chose to leave. Others chose to stay, didn’t like her work and later left. 

After graduating from Duke Law School in 1994, Deberry became a criminal defense attorney. She hated prosecutors. Now, she’s one of them. 

“If a prosecutor told me the sky is blue, I would have to walk outside because I would think they lied,” Deberry said. 

Given her background and approach to systemic discrimination, she was skeptical when people pushed her to run for district attorney. She decided to run after doing research and concluding that it was possible to put more emphasis on prosecuting violent crime and helping victims. 

She says she’s reorganized the office to create more specialization among the prosecutors. Her office now has six teams, including a homicide and violent crime unit, so prosecutors are more fluent in the law and “intelligence” around their topic. Other teams include a drug and property crime unit, a traffic team and a special victims unit. 

One of the challenges Deberry’s reorganized office has faced was grappling with a homicide backlog of nearly 100 cases. In her first half-year in office, she closed 22 cases, 15 by getting guilty verdicts, according to a report from her office.  

But she said there was heartache from other cases that her office had to dismiss because of a lack of evidence. That was particularly hard on family members of people killed and it can undermine confidence in the office. 

Deberry said she also wants to continue to expand its restorative justice efforts that unite victims and defendants in hopes of healing. 

“Every defendant is a member of our community. Whether they go to prison or not, at some point they return to our community,” Deberry said. “So how do we repair this violation so people are able to move on with their lives even after they’ve been held accountable?”