In December, Alexander Bishop’s defense attorney Allyn Sharp made a highly unusual move: she asked the judge to hold prosecutors in contempt of the court, which could put them behind bars.
Much of the evidence against Alexander, a Durham teenager charged with killing his wealthy father Bill Bishop, had been tossed in October after a judge said the lead investigator “invent[ed] facts.”
After that, Sharp filed the December motion to hold the investigator, Tony Huelsman, and prosecutors in contempt for failing to turn over evidence. Sharp also asked that the case be dismissed.
Until then, the case against Alexander seemed to be proceeding as expected, pending an appeal regarding the tossed evidence. Prosecutors had given no indication they were throwing in the towel on the case.
By Feb. 3, no hearing on the contempt motion had been scheduled. In a letter to Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr., Sharp suggested that District Attorney Satana Deberry was dragging her feet in scheduling a hearing in which she would have to defend herself. If found guilty of contempt, Deberry, Huelsman, and Assistant District Attorney Beth Hopkins Thomas each could face up to six months in jail.
Three days later, prosecutors dropped the charges against Alexander, citing insufficient evidence. They haven’t explained why. Could the charges have been dropped to avoid the hearing?
“The timing certainly raises questions,” said Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry for the district attorney seat in 2018.
Deberry and Hopkins Thomas declined to comment when asked about the timing. Sarah Willets, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, also declined to expand on why the charges were dropped, saying the office doesn’t comment on cases after they are dismissed.
Unusual moves and delays seeing evidence
Motions to hold a prosecutor in contempt are “exceedingly rare,” according to Durham criminal defense attorney Alex Charns. Meier agreed.
Usually, if prosecutors aren’t turning over evidence, a hearing will be held to discuss why the information isn’t being provided, Meier said.
“If it’s legitimate, everyone moves on,” Meier said. “If there is no good reason, (the evidence) is ordered turned over.”
But in the Bishop case, the typical process seemed to fall apart.
During the initial discovery phase, Sharp noticed many items that prosecutors were supposed to hand over were missing. At a homicide status conference in April, a judge told her to list all 33 of the missing items, which Sharp emailed to prosecutors, according to her contempt motion.
But nearly a month later, she hadn’t received any of the evidence, according to her motion. And when some of it arrived, it was incomplete. In mid-May, when she got police body camera footage, four of 19 body camera footage files she requested were missing.
Sharp asked for the missing files. She got back duplicates of ones she had already received, not the missing ones. She asked again. Those missing videos turned out to be crucial to the case.
Huelsman misrepresented what Alexander said to first responders in the videos in search warrants in three of the four missing videos, Judge Hudson found when he tossed swaths of evidence due to Huelsman’s misconduct.
“It is evident that the District Attorney and/or Investigator Huelsman are deliberately withholding evidence which they know undermines the State’s case, providing items only after they are specifically identified as missing by undersigned counsel, and even then refusing to provide items which clearly contradict Investigator Huelsman’s sworn statements,” Sharp wrote in the motion.
In September, Hudson ordered prosecutors to turn over the complete file.
That still hadn’t happened by December, Sharp claimed in the Dec. 17 motion. Some of the missing evidence included financial documents from Bill’s computer.
After unsuccessfully trying to get a hearing date in January, Sharp wrote a letter to Judge Hudson on Feb. 3 asking him to schedule a hearing on the contempt motion. Three days later, prosecutors filed a motion to drop the charges against Alexander.
Although Meier said the timing raises questions, Charns said he didn’t want to speculate on why the charges were dropped.
Alexander was already free on a $250,000 unsecured bond before the charges were dropped.
“Alexander is grateful to finally be able to move on with his life after the tragic loss of his father and an unwarranted criminal prosecution,” Sharp said in a statement.
Prosecutors had appealed Hudson’s move to toss evidence, but that appeal has become “moot” due to the dropped charges, Willets told the 9th Street Journal.
But charges against him could be refiled later, Willets said, although she declined to comment when asked if prosecutors would continue to pursue charges against him.
Meier said, “The charges could be refiled pretty much whenever the prosecutor wanted to do so. However, it’s very rarely done unless there is some new evidence that comes to light.”
In the early morning on Dec. 13, 2018, a Duke student was sitting in her apartment’s common room in the university’s Central Campus. She was cramming for her organic chemistry final when a man she didn’t know opened the door. She said the stranger entered, threatened her with a knife, and raped her.
The student, then a sophomore, immediately went to the Duke Hospital emergency room. She wanted a sexual assault nurse examiner to collect a rape kit, an invasive evidence collection process that often takes hours and requires victims to describe the details of their assault. But that kit could provide crucial evidence for police to catch her assailant.
Police have not announced any arrests in the case. But six months after the assault, the student received a call from a number she didn’t recognize.
“This is a call from a debt collection agency for Duke Health,” the person said, according to the student. The caller informed her that she owed hundreds of dollars for her emergency room visit for the rape examination.
“Before that, I had no idea I owed any money,” the student, who asked not to be identified, told The 9th Street Journal in an interview. “I asked them to talk to my mom because it was really traumatic and hard, but they didn’t do that. They kept calling me over and over again.”
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Rape victims are not supposed to be charged for sexual assault exams, but the rules have loopholes.
The federal Violence Against Women Act requires that all states cover the cost of the exams. But beyond the exams themselves, each state can decide what additional hospital services they’ll cover.
North Carolina’s interpretation is called the Rape Victims Assistance Program. The program offers hospitals up to $800 for a sexual assault exam: $350 for the sexual assault nurse examiner, $250 for the hospital facility fees, and $200 for “other expenses,” including sexually transmitted disease antibiotics or pregnancy tests for the victim. Victims should never be directly billed by a hospital for the examination, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
But Molly Chadbourne, a former sexual assault nurse examiner in Durham, said victims still get charged for other services.
“There are still fees for checking into the hospital, for getting an X-ray, or for needing other care,” she explained. “All that other stuff, patients can get charged for. Sexual assault patients definitely get bills.”
Chadbourne said some states cover all of a sexual assault victim’s other hospital bills, while others cap their payments at a certain amount. She noted the $800 cap in North Carolina and said, “$800 is nothing at a hospital.”
Though the Violence Against Women Act is supposed to protect victims from being billed after a sexual assault, many women have reported experiences like the student’s, according to accounts in news articles and websites. The practice is caused by a combination of state policy, billing mistakes, and poor communication between debt collectors and hospitals.
* * *
When the student went to Duke Hospital last December after being assaulted, she didn’t bring her insurance card.
“They said that was fine at the time,” she said. She was told that she wouldn’t have to pay for her sexual assault exam and that she didn’t have to worry about billing.
A few hours after the assault, police sent a Duke Alert, the university’s warning system for crime and severe weather. “A student reported that between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. this morning… she was awakened by a white male with short brown hair and a perfume smell about him,” read the alert emailed to students, faculty, and staff. “He threatened her with a knife, put on a condom, and forced her to have sex.”
The student was embarrassed by the detailed university-wide alert. “Reading the email was really hard,” she said. “They never asked me if it was okay to send out that email, or if I even wanted to talk to the police. They just said, ‘You need to talk to this officer,’ and I did it because it felt like I had to.”
Months after the assault, she was beginning to heal. She was put in contact with the Duke Women’s Center and started seeing a psychiatrist.
Duke Hospital has an online billing system. But the student said she didn’t think she would have bills, so she never checked it. After four months, Duke Health sends all unpaid medical bills to debt collection agencies.
Then, she got the first call from a debt collector. The calls kept coming.
“We are (a) debt collector,” a voicemail message from the agency said. “This call is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose.”
“They’re always from a random number, and never the same number twice,” the student said. “I told them my insurance card information, and I got confirmation that everything was worked out over the summer. But they continue to call and say we owe them even more.”
When she called Duke Health to report what was happening, the billing office told her that she had an outstanding charge. She asked that the debt collectors contact her mom instead so she wouldn’t have to explain her situation to strangers. She and her mom are still working through the bill.
Her bill from her emergency room visit on Dec. 13 is labeled “Accounts with Collections Agency” in Duke’s online billing system. But she said she has difficulty determining how much she owes because the collectors have a separate billing system.
The collectors keep calling, every few months.
The student authorized Duke Health to discuss her bills with The 9th Street Journal, but a Duke Health spokeswoman declined to comment on the student’s situation.
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Across the country, victims have reported getting billed by hospitals after a sexual assault.
“We definitely hear about this,” said Grace Frances, the director of community parternships at End Violence Against Women International, a nonprofit that educates professionals about sexual assault. “It is definitely still a problem.”
In 2017, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the average hospital bill after a rape was $6,737. After billing insurance, sexual assault victims were left with an average of $948 to pay out of pocket. And 88% of medical records indicated that victims were charged on the day they visited the hospital.
“Oftentimes, the charges that they’re seeing aren’t the cost of the rape kit,” said Ashley Tennessee, the lead researcher on the study and an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. “Most people who are sexually assaulted have additional costs. They might want tests completed, or treatments for physical abuse.”
Tennessee sees the problem as twofold: Victims are sometimes mistakenly charged for their rape kit exam. But more often, they’re billed for treatment related to their sexual assault.
If victims check into the emergency room, they can also be charged a facility fee. Duke itself acknowledges that going to its emergency room will cost patients “at least $1,000.”
Asked if Duke Health has a policy about charging for sexual assault exams, a spokeswoman declined to comment.
Tennessee recommends that states broaden their policies to reimburse hospitals for more than just the sexual assault exam. She also hopes that hospitals will charge sexual assault victims through a separate billing process to ensure that no mistakes are made.
“Someone has to pay for it,” she said. “At this point, it’s the victim.”
* * *
For sexual assault survivors who have been billed by hospitals in North Carolina, there is another option: the crime victim compensation fund. Victims of violent crime can apply for medical compensation up to $30,000, including physical treatment and future counseling.
But there are bureaucratic hurdles that can be challenging for survivors of sexual assault. To submit a claim, a victim must provide a police report. That means they have to report their rape to police before they’re eligible for the compensation.
“I think you should be able to come into the emergency room and say, ‘I was sexually assaulted, I want to get medical care,’ and get that for free,” Chadbourne said. “But that’s not how it works.”
Even for victims who are eligible to apply to the compensation fund, there are still barriers. They have to collect documents and get them notarized before submitting their application, and will likely wait months to receive compensation. And in the meantime, they’ll still be billed for their sexual assault exam visit.
“It’s unacceptable,” Frances said. “You’re telling victims that you don’t care what it means to them when they get a bill in the mail, and their family sees it.”
“It’s putting the responsibility on the victim to get themselves reimbursed,” Chadbourne said. “And that’s hard.”
For the Duke student, it is also confusing.
“We’re unsure about what the bill is for at this point, because we’ve already paid so much,” she said.
She also feels betrayed by the institution that failed to protect her while on campus.
“I hated their whole response,” she said. “They just sent us to a collection agency.”
When you walk into the square gray box that is the Durham County courthouse, you find yourself in a sterile administrative wasteland of brownish stone walls and cold hard floors. You can feel like you’re in trouble even if you’re just there to visit.
But on the eighth floor, in an office nestled in the back, there is a speck of color on Satana Deberry’s feet – bright red Chuck Taylor high-tops. Before she goes to work as Durham County’s district attorney, she laces up those sneakers to complement her pantsuit and her silver hoop earrings.
Satana Deberry does not resemble the district attorneys you see on crime shows or in most cities. She can be stern and serious when the occasion demands it, but she laughs a lot – so much that her staff tracks her location by the volume of her laugh echoing through the halls. (She’s been a stand-up comedian.)
In addition to being a woman of color in a field where 95 percent of elected prosecutors are white and 76 percent are men, Deberry has a unique way of looking at justice. She is the antithesis of the Harvey Dent-style white knight of Gotham City, intent on locking up all the bad guys. She is part of a national movement of new district attorneys working to address mass incarceration and disparities in the justice system by being more deliberate about prosecutions.
With her policies, persona, and personnel changes – she says there’s been a 50 percent turnover in her office since she arrived – Deberry is challenging the status quo. That makes some people uncomfortable, but she is accustomed to that.
She is a queer single mother of three whose birth certificate categorizes her as “negro” and whose great-great-grandmother was enslaved just two hours southeast of Durham in Anson County. She graduated from Princeton and then from Duke Law School. She has never fit neatly into the box of others’ expectations.
The end game is not convictions, the end game is justice
Prosecutors – the real ones as well as the fictional ones like Harvey Dent – often see their work as good versus evil. But Deberry says it’s more complex and she sees people carrying the weight of their experiences when they walk into the courthouse.
That’s a shift in the script for district attorneys, who often vilify criminals in their campaign ads and boast about high conviction rates.
The “tough on crime” era, beginning in the 1980s with policies such as mandatory minimum sentences and truth in sentencing laws, packed the nation’s prisons. The number of people incarcerated has quintupled in the past 40 years, giving the United States the highest rate in the world, with black people incarcerated at more than five-times the rate of white people.
Prosecutors have tremendous power – not just about which cases to pursue, but what the outcome should be. Through plea bargains and sentencing, they have immense control over people’s futures. Deberry looks at her job holistically. “I’m not the police, and there are not many prosecutors offices who will say that,” she said. “My job is to get to the truth.”
She emphasizes that the prosecutor represents the commonwealth. That includes the victim, but it also includes the community and the defendant.
Deberry said she will focus her office’s resources on prosecuting homicide and violent felonies instead of low-level crimes like marijuana possession for personal use. She also implemented a pretrial release policy that enables people to get out of jail on a written promise to appear in court – limiting the use of cash bail – which has led to a 12 percent decrease in the jail population.
“There are a couple of ways you can do this job,” Deberry said, noting that her approach is more difficult. “It’s a lot easier to be tough on crime because you don’t have to think about your impact on people’s lives or on the community. That makes it easier to do the work and it leaves it on your desk… it’s harder to look at each individual case and look at each defendant as a human being.”
Occasionally you can see glimpses of how she has challenged courthouse norms.
During homicide status day – which occurs four times a year to give the judge an update on all of the pending homicide cases – Deberry asked a court deputy to retrieve a defendant from jail so he could hear an update on his case. The deputy refused, arguing that it would cause too much chaos in the courtroom. He said they never brought defendants under the former district attorney. Deberry tensed up, frustrated that he would challenge her authority in open court.
After a lot of back and forth, she eventually got her way. But Deberry was not happy.
“Corporal!” She shouted as he was stepping onto the elevator. When he turned around, she looked him in the eye and said,“When I request a defendant, the defendant comes.”
“It is important that a defendant be present for a hearing pertaining to his rights,” she added.
He replied that he was only doing his job to avoid a disruption and that he reports to the sheriff, not her.
“I absolutely respect what you do in there in terms of safety and security,” Deberry said. “But we need to come to an understanding about who is in charge of that courtroom. When I am standing outside on the steps of the courthouse, I defer to the sheriff. But inside the courtroom, I have the final say as the elected district attorney.”
Back in her office, she told her prosecutors about the incident. “I am slow to offend,” she said while leaning on the door frame, but this had irked her.
Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, an assistant district attorney, agreed with her boss and said that she thinks all defendants should be present for homicide status day. “Otherwise they won’t see the light of a courtroom for like two years,” she said.
Deberry said policies have been easier to change than attitudes. “The interaction with the bailiff today shows that the culture in the courtroom hasn’t changed as much as it should have.”
The 50% turnover in her legal team gave Deberry an opportunity to shift the focus in her office. Most of her hires had been defense attorneys or worked in academia, which Deberry says has brought fresh perspectives.
Not everyone believes her new hires have what it takes.
“Frankly, almost everyone with experience has left,” said Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry for district attorney in the 2018 primary. “You need people who actually know the system.”
But Deberry says their experience outside the role of prosecutor is precisely what equips them to implement her reforms.
For example, she hired Beth Hopkins Thomas, former juvenile defense attorney and school teacher, to handle all juvenile cases, from low-level nonviolent crimes to homicide.
Together she and Deberry made the decision to stop taking court referrals for school based-incidents because they believe that students’ behavioral challenges are better handled by educators. Kids who are exposed to the criminal justice system often grow into adults who stay in the criminal justice system.
“I was a teacher before I went to law school and I watched that pipeline stem from my school,” Hopkins Thomas said. “Having the ability to say we are not going to be participating in this pipeline is very empowering.”
Meier said that Deberry’s hires, many of whom come from social justice backgrounds, don’t have the right stomach for prosecuting criminals. He pointed to Alyson Grine — a prosecutor for homicide and violent crimes — as an example. “She went from a liberal position – reform the system, fight racial bias – to having to send people to prison for the rest of their lives.”
Deberry said the heavy caseload can quickly tempt her new hires to be more prosecutorial than they expected, so they are constantly having conversations to ask themselves “not only can we prosecute this, but should we?”
“We see horrible things. It is natural as a human being to respond to those.” She said even if the crime is nonviolent, the desire for retribution is often a natural reflex. “And so we really just want to always be double checking ourselves and saying, is our response getting to the truth? Is it fair? Is it just?”
A national movement
Deberry is part of a new movement of progressive prosecutors. They come together frequently through an organization called Fair and Just Prosecution that is trying to redefine the role of district attorneys.
Members have traveled to Germany and Portugal to compare other countries’ approaches to justice. “The number one thing I learned from both of those places — that I already knew but is driven home when you go somewhere else — is how punitive we are in the United States,” Deberry said. “We really like to punish people and we think of that almost as a virtue.”
Deberry is particularly close to Rachael Rollins, the district attorney from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes Boston. Rollins took office the day before Deberry and the two have a lot in common.
“Particularly the black female DAs, we have a text chain we are all in. We like to remain in contact with each other. If somebody has a particularly terrible day, we are there for each other, which is really nice,” Rollins said.
As a woman of color from the rural South, Deberry faced countless obstacles to get where she is today. In high school when she interviewed for a prestigious scholarship at the University of Chapel Hill, she was accused of plagiarizing her essay by one of the committee members. “He just could not believe that a black kid from Hamlet could have written it.”
“I thought I was growing up in an America where I could do anything, but really there were other people making these decisions about what schools I got to go to, and what classes I got to take, even what schools I applied to.” When she decided to apply to Princeton, she got a lot of pushback from guidance counselors and teachers. “There was a lot of discouragement because they thought I was doing something that was ‘above my raisin’.’’’
Both Rollins and Deberry also have family members who have been involved with the justice system. After law school and some time practicing in D.C., Deberry returned to her hometown of Hamlet, North Carolina, and she was asked to defend her cousin who was charged with murder.
“I saw people who I had grown up with involved in the criminal justice system, many of whom had never left and did not finish high school,” Deberry said. “I also saw how, in a community that was not majority black, the criminal justice system is almost entirely black.”
Those experiences are why Deberry balks at comments from Meier, who says she “has a fundamental lack of understanding of the system,” and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, who says that the work of progressive prosecutors is “demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety.”
“I would say in response to that, they are the ones who don’t understand the role of the prosecutor,” Deberry said.
“I think we understand fully what the discretion of prosecutors has wrought in this country. There was nothing wrong with the discretion of the prosecutor for the hundreds of years in which it was used to marginalize and criminalize people. Now all of a sudden, because people who look like me have that discretion, they want to paint it as illegitimate.”
She makes a similar point when she introduces herself in speeches:
“I am Satana Deberry,” she says. “I am the district attorney of the 16th prosecutorial district… I tell you my name, not because you don’t know it. I tell you my name because every day in this country and this community there are people who go nameless. People who have been failed by one system after another. People who often look like me.”
Update: This story has been corrected with details about Deberry’s office, her Chucks and the role of prosecutor Alyson Grine.
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
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 over25% 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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.