The trouble started when Hillside High School student Logan Lewis hopped off the stage and into the audience wielding a fake handgun.
Gunshots sounded, and a student actor on stage crumpled to the floor, dropping another fake handgun. The victim’s friend picked up the gun and chased Lewis to his home where he pounded his fists on the door, screaming for his mother. More gunshots rang out, and Lewis’ mother opened the door to find her son dead on her doorstep.
In the blink of an eye, the fictional community became a crime scene: Yellow tape wrapped around the porch and desperate sobs from huddled family members pierced the air, echoed by sniffles from the audience.
It was all made up, an emotional scene toward the end of Hillside’s production of an original play “State of Urgency.”
But the play also reflects actual events. “State of Urgency” originated as a response to Durham’s worsening gun violence problem. It also draws upon the real-life experiences of Hillside students, linking the experience of street violence with classroom struggles.
The play was performed three times over the weekend of November 14-16, and discussions are underway about presenting the play to other school audiences around Durham in the future.
A student-teacher collaboration
Hillside Drama Director Wendell Tabb wrote the play together with 16 Hillside students, including 11th-grader and Drama Club President Aniya Lowe.
“I got emotional at times,” Lowe said. “It’s really the nicest people to go through the worst things…They’re speaking about it to you and you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, this happened to you and I didn’t even know’.”
The play—the school’s first in-person production since the pandemic began—featured powerful monologues drawn from students’ personal experiences, as well as moving original songs and dance numbers. It addressed a range of issues, from colorism and school bullying to police brutality and Black-on-Black violence, forming a collage of the harsh realities feeding the growth of gun violence in Durham.
A call to action
Act One of “State of Urgency” opens with a flurry of emotions: Students, all wearing t-shirts with taglines such as “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” yell out desires for peace, safety and mental health support. The voices crescendo into a collective question, perhaps pointed at the police, the government, the adults in the room, or all three: “Where are you?”
It is the first of many appeals to the audience.
The play’s action takes place on a city block, with a corner store, community recreation center and living quarters.
The audience first sees the block as it was in 1979: unified, safe and lively. Things quickly deteriorate as flashing lights and eerie music bring us into the present, where the block feels isolated and unsafe.
Scenes of police brutality follow, along with scenes of school strife, where colorism and materialism lead to bullying and exclusion.
Act Two opens with the students wandering the block, lamenting the violence they are living through.
The scenes that follow look beyond the world of high school, including a depiction of a traffic stop gone fatally awry. A traffic officer mistakes a man’s phone for a gun and shoots the man as passersby capture the tragic death on camera. The stage sweeps into a Black Lives Matter protest, with students hoisting signs and chanting.
The play also spotlights intergenerational debates over police reform and the value of protesting.
“Preserve the good and weed out the bad,” the cast says in unison, summarizing the debate.
The play wraps up with the students returning to the stage and imploring the audience to look within and be the change they want to see.
“This was a call to action,” Oral Chinfloo, a Hillside parent said after the performance. “I hope people reflect on what they just witnessed.”
Fiction and real life
The play pays homage to civil rights leaders of the past, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Outside the theater, Tabb also highlighted local activism. In the building’s foyer, organizations such as Bull City United and Guns Down Hearts Up set up tables devoted to their work against gun violence. The Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt stretched along the foyer, holding over 800 names, each written on a cloth square. One square held the name of Robert Antone Baines, who was fatally shot in February 2021. His mother, Brenda Young, stood quietly nearby.
Before the play began, Tabb welcomed Young to the stage. Young shared how senseless violence took the lives of three of her family members. She begged members of the audience to help end local gun violence.
“I grieve every day,” Young said. “Don’t wait ’til it hits you… You do not want to go through this pain.”
Tabb then asked any victims of gun violence in the audience to stand. Six people rose.
After the play, as students greeted their families outside the theater for congratulatory hugs, a few people congregated around the memorial quilt. Young stood over the quilt, looking at the square with her son’s name on it. Closer to the middle of the quilt, a young dancer wept quietly over another cloth square.
“Even though this is make-believe for us in terms of theater, this is not make-believe in real life,” Tabb said in an interview afterward. “It’s not a game. And as a community, we can’t treat it as a game.”
Above, Brenda Young points to her son’s name on the Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt, on display at Hillside High School during the production of ‘State of Urgency’. Photo by Olivia Olsher – The 9th Street Journal
In this latest Reflections podcast, Lilly Clark talks about how the news media’s coverage of the courts system sometimes does more harm than good. And she offers some thoughts on how reporters and editors can do better. Listen on Apple or Spotify.
This podcast is part of a series that features 9th Street Journal reporters discussing lessons they’ve learned — about themselves and about journalism — as they’ve worked on articles for the site. The first podcast spotlighted Grace Abels.
Durham officials clashed with prison abolitionists Thursday night over a $30 million plan to more than double the size of the county’s juvenile detention center.
Durham Beyond Policing, which advocates for diverting all funding for police and prisons into social programs, organized the virtual town hall. Over 120 Durhamites attended, many of them opposed to county plans to replace the 14-bed Durham County Youth Home with a 36-bed facility.
County commissioners and Youth Home Director Angela Nunn pointed to the 38-year-old building’s outdated facilities and limited bedspace. But many community members say that expanding the juvenile justice system would harm Durham’s youth.
This debate comes as communities throughout North Carolina and the United States grapple with a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes poor people and racial minorities of all ages.
“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” Nunn said of the detention facility. “Our families are in crisis and we need to help.”
Said community member Nicole Cooper, “If [detained youth] didn’t have mental health issues when they were incarcerated, they will when they are released.”
The $30 million question
In a2015 report to the county, Nunn identified several serious problems with the Youth Home.
She described “a dangerous environment for staff and residents,” plagued by faulty plumbing, fire code violations, bad lighting and a failing door control system. But the “greatest security concern” was the facility’s layout, which prevented staff from separating youth based on gender or security level.
The report also raised doubts about the Youth Home’s ability to house Durham juveniles if the state were to start trying 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Raise the Age, the law that mandates that courts do this, passed in 2019—resulting in even less bedspace at the detention center.
“The facility is so bad, it’s sad to see anyone in that place, no matter what they have done,” Commissioner Chair Brenda Howerton said at the town hall.
That’s why commissioners agreed to an overhaul of the facility. The new Youth Home, which the city has been planning since 2015, would include an assessment center to determine children’s needs and connect them with programs and services. And the facility would still have enough room to expand into a 60-bed center if it ever needed to.
The expanded detention center would stand on the same plot of land as the current one, which would be demolished once the new one is completed.
But Durham activists argued that the $30-million expansion budget should go to social programs that address the root causes of youth delinquency. In an on-the-spot brainstorming session, community members suggested more than 50 alternative uses for the money.
Ideas included mental health services, counselors, drug rehabilitation programs, universal childcare, universal pre-K and a youth center.
“This is why public input is necessary!” the Durham Beyond Policing admin wrote in the Zoom chat. “Amazing ideas y’all.”
For the first half of the town hall, which started at 7 p.m and ran until about 9:15 p.m., opponents of the new Youth Home raised a variety of concerns.
Organizer Tyler Whittenberg argued that detention centers isolate children and worsen preexisting issues. And Meghan McDowell, a professor of history and social justice at Winston-Salem State University, pointed out that youth incarceration rates have declined over the past ten years. Since 2016, the Youth Home has never averaged more than 12.6 detainees per quarter.
Other community members spoke emotionally about Durham County’s handling of children’s offenses and mental health crises.
One woman’s daughter was violent, lit fires in the house, showed signs of kleptomania and said she heard voices. But for six years, professionals told the mother that the girl had “no obvious mental health challenges.”
Another woman still grieves the death of her 16-year-old daughter, who died in the Durham County jail before Raise the Age passed.
When representatives from the county government took the virtual floor, however, the tone shifted dramatically.
Director Nunn’s voice was sharp with anger as she addressed organizers’ critiques. She noted that although the quarterly averages don’t show it, the Youth Home’s population fluctuates from day to day.
“We may have 14 [youth] today, 12 tomorrow and by the weekend we may empty to five,” she said.
This means the Youth Home “often” runs out of bed space and must send children to one of the state’s 11 other juvenile detention centers. The nearest of these is in Butner, 12 miles from downtown Durham.
In the chat, Durhamites heckled Nunn as she spoke, repeatedly asking why the Youth Home would ever need to expand to 60 beds. Some argued that having additional beds “creates an imperative” to fill them, even though the courts, not the Youth Home, control who gets sent there. And Whittenberg interrupted Nunn four times to urge officials to renovate the existing facility, rather than build a new one.
“I just wanted to intervene for a second,” said organizer Ronda Taylor Bullock, closing out the argument. “Let’s take some deep breaths.”
In the last portion of the town hall, four of the Durham County Commissioners who attended — Brenda Howerton, Wendy Jacobs, Nida Allam and Heidi Carter — responded to community concerns.
Howerton, the first to speak, blasted organizers for dismissing the reality of violent crimes.
“I’m a Black mother,” she said. “I don’t want my child to be in jail. But I also understand that when [a child] picks up a gun and murders someone else’s child, that child is in pain. And if you want to put them back on the street to murder someone else before they have a chance to be healed—is that what you’re looking to do?”
Jacobs, Allam and Carter were more conciliatory. All raised the possibility of shutting down the Youth Home if that’s what the public wants, although this would mean sending Durham youth to out-of-county detention centers.
Organizers, for their part, bemoaned a lack of communication prior to the town hall. While the five-member County Commission had discussed the Youth Home proposal atmultiple public meetings, many Durhamites said they’d only recently heard about it.
Commissioners agreed to hold another public hearing on the Youth Home soon.
Said Commissioner Allam, “I really appreciate you guys giving us this opportunity as commissioners to be a part of this conversation and listen.”
It’s the fourth week of school and I’m crying in my editor’s well-lit office.
It’s nothing serious — I cry frustratingly easily, often about things that I’m mildly stressed about or invested in. It’s involuntary and annoying.
I’m crying in my editor’s office, across his honey-colored desk, because I want to leave the names out of my story, and he wants to leave them in.
I wrote the story about something I watched happen in traffic court, a moment of simultaneous justice and mercy in a place where seemingly mundane rules can transform people’s lives.
The judge sentenced a 30-year-old man to 10 days in jail for driving while impaired with a revoked license, despite his attorney’s plea that he’d been coping with the aftermath of his mother’s unexpected death. While security personnel sorted the man’s belongings and took him to jail, a college student read an essay about traffic school to the court. The judge dismissed the 19-year-old’s speeding and marijuana charges and sent him back into freedom with a “Good luck to you, sir.”
Stephen Buckley, my editor, gave me this working definition of journalism in a moment of crisis the week before: true stories for the public good. I scrawled it on an empty page in my notebook three pages before the traffic court scene went down.
If it were up to me, despite the 11 hours I spent in court this week, I’d have written nothing at all, I tell Buckley. I don’t think this story does much for the public good. I ask him if we can leave the piece unpublished or take the names out, and he says that’s not up to us to decide. Everything that happened in that courtroom is already public information.
This point I still disagree with. Just because information is public doesn’t mean it’s ethical to amplify. I believe that in general, it might be a good thing that you have to visit the courthouse or pay a website to find a person’s dismissed charges.
However, Buckley gently explains other important ways my thinking is wrong. I’m paraphrasing my impressions here because I didn’t take notes or record.
This is why you have to try to talk to people and not be a chicken, he says. (He doesn’t say the chicken part.) They might be completely game to talk to you for an article and you’re missing out on an important perspective — theirs.
Also, you’re assuming readers will think the worst of the people in your story, he says. Have a little more faith in them. You actually paint this teenager in a good light. People won’t judge him just because the police charged him.
But because I’m guilty of skimming news articles and missing humanizing details, I’m skeptical of the reader.
It’s an easier and more straightforward process to clear your name in the courts than in the newsroom, at least in Durham. I think this might be because what the court sees as punishment, journalists see as information. Also, when you’re writing an article due at 11:59 p.m., it can be hard to imagine what it’ll be like for someone to have that story still tied to their name on Google in 30 years.
Some newspapers deny unpublishing requests on principle, and some use nebulous criteria. Some will add an addendum about dropped charges but not alter an article’s original text. Editors often decide on a case-by-case basis.
In North Carolina’s courts, you fill out a form and pay $175 to clear your record of prior charges and convictions. There are how-to websites. You can get free legal assistance. The DA’s office itself has petitioned the court to do this for juveniles prosecuted as adults.
Not everyone is eligible, but the 2020 Second Chance Act allows people a new legal start. They can erase from their record non-violent misdemeanors, dismissed or not guilty charges, and certain juvenile convictions.
“In a lower level case, having your arrest and your mugshot easily called up on Google anytime someone searches your name for the rest of your life might actually be a stiffer consequence than the crime itself,” said Sarah Willets, spokesperson for Durham’s District Attorney’s office. “That could follow you for far longer than any sentence that the law would allow.”
I went to Willets looking for expertise on the collateral damage of courthouse coverage because she’s had a foot in both journalism and prosecution. She worked as a crime reporter for years and now she manages communications in an office where prosecutors typically can’t comment to journalists.
Willets thinks the press play a vital role in the courts. But, she said, they could play that role more ethically.
“Are you going to follow through when you report on an arrest or a pending case? Are you going to follow through and say what the outcome was?” she said. “And if not, if it’s not worth following that case to the end, is there really a public interest in covering it?”
Consider whether you’re writing for the public good or just because a story’s kind of interesting, and someone might want to read about it, Willets said. I believe my story fell into the second category, even though I was hoping to write something of the first.
Willets told me she fought with her editors too. She wrote about a reentry program and one man’s experience leaving prison for her last story at Indy Week. She wanted to leave the man’s crime out, her editor wanted to leave it in.
The city — Durham — had decided he should move on, she said. “And who are we to stand in the way of that?”
Her editor countered: that’s a big thing to conceal from readers. The editor won — the man’s conviction sits in the fifth paragraph of the published story online.
I left Buckley’s office thinking he too had won, that we would publish the story, and with names. But to spare me the stress, and because the primary goal of this class is to learn, not just to publish, he told me later that we wouldn’t.
Before I keep complaining about being a “student journalist” who doesn’t seem to want to publish any journalism, I’ll flash us back to last fall. I was among a crowd of protestors in head-to-toe black that set off fireworks outside Durham County jail.
Earlier in their march they’d chanted, “News is cops, news is cops,” and blocked TV cameras with umbrellas. I’d chanted along the rest of the night, but in those moments I hesitated, not sure what to say.
I was in a news writing class at the time and thought I wanted to become an audio journalist.
Four days later I was back in journalism class and still thinking about it. If news is cops, should I be writing news? Can journalism avoid this?
A friend who was there that night graciously gave me some of their time on the phone. They told me a local TV station had posted mugshots of their friends arrested for protesting earlier that summer. Then those friends got doxxed, which means readers found and published their private information online, a particularly vicious revenge tactic. The news cost them.
My traffic court article was a different situation entirely. Buckley told me so while I objected, and he was right. But I do think about how what my peers and I write can reinforce the judgments of a broken criminal legal system.
How do we balance readers’ trust with future costs to our sources, costs exacerbated by internet longevity? Is every omission an effort to conceal? How do we minimize harm while maximizing the public good?
Willets gave me a few recommendations. In essence, she said, look for consent and context. Talk to the parties involved — especially victims — and make them understand how this story could follow them, she said. Situate the criminal case within the social issues forcing people to come to court, like lack of mental health care or community investment. Study the research around crime. Stick around and follow through.
This advice is hard to follow on deadline. Court cases can take forever: even the simple ones may drag on for months or years.
Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi spent a year reporting Serial season 3, the podcast that inspired the creation of the 9th Street Journal’s courthouse reporting project. Each vignette they present from the Cleveland courthouse consists of months of interviews. Our vignettes, or “Courthouse Moments,” pan out over one week.
Maybe that’s where I land: I’m unwilling to do quick journalism, even if that means I won’t be employable in this field. Maybe one day newspapers will make different decisions about whether their quick news should last forever in its original form; maybe we’ll make unpublishing guidelines more transparent to the people we report on.
I don’t think I’ve come to any solid answers. I have a feeling I’ll squirm closer to a conclusion in the coming years, talking through these conflicts with editors (and unfortunately probably after shedding a few more tears).
Photo Above: Lilly Clark, by Josie Vonk — The 9th Street Journal
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.
On the eighth floor of the Durham courthouse, a beige tower that is home to the county’s criminal justice system, you will find the office of District Attorney Satana Deberry. With colorful pillows and local art on every wall, her office seems out of place in the drab building. But Deberry, a black queer woman, hasn’t been a typical prosecutor.
She oversees a system that often entangles people that look just like her. But she is the one running it – and trying to change it.
Studies have found that LGBTQ people, like people of color, are disproportionately harmed by our justice system. Deberry, elected in 2018 on a mandate of criminal justice reform, has brought a unique understanding of the LGBTQ community to the DA’s office.
In an interview for Pride Month, she spoke with The 9th Street Journal about her life as a queer woman and her feelings about representation and justice.
We all have idols that shape us. In a framed photo tucked in the corner of her office, Deberry memorializes hers: Barbara Jordan.
Jordan, a “towering figure” in the 1970s, was one of the first black women to serve in the Texas State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. She, like Deberry, was unafraid to challenge the status quo.
During President Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearing, Jordan famously declared: “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder.”
“I wanted to be Barbara Jordan,” said Deberry. “Barbara Jordan was the first black woman that I saw that I knew.”
Building a Life
With Barbara Jordan in mind, young Deberry chased excellence in school. She decided good grades would be her path out of Hamlet, N.C. – a town of 6,000 between Charlotte and Fayetteville. It worked. Her determination and focus on academics carried her all the way to Princeton and through law school at Duke University. To this day, she still doesn’t “see light blue.”
She was always focused on her studies, so it wasn’t until her mid to late 20s, after graduating from law school, that Deberry began to understand her own sexuality. “It started to occur to me that I had to build a life. And how was I going to build that life?”
She realized there was only one option. “It was never a case that I wasn’t going to be out. Because that’s just not who I am,” she said.
The core values of openness and transparency that she brings to her office stem from her own disposition. “I’m always trying to be my best self. And so, I don’t really think of being myself as being brave. I mean, that’s what we’re all doing.”
When she came out, her parents were not surprised. “We already knew that,” they told her matter-of-factly, “so you should probably tell us something new.”
Her parents were supportive, but for her mother, queer life was associated with tragedy. Deberry’s aunt, who today would likely identify as trans, lived a dangerous life and was ultimately killed. “I think for my parents, especially for my mother, that was the only kind of life you could have as a queer person . . . on the edges of society.”
Deberry worked for a few years as a criminal lawyer before taking jobs at various non-profit groups like Self-Help and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Then from 2013 to 2018, she served as the head of N.C. Housing Coalition – all while raising three daughters as a single mother.
In 2018, she was elected the county’s chief prosecutor by promising bold reform. Rejecting the hard-line approach of many district attorneys, she vowed to put less emphasis on non-violent crime and said she would address racial bias in the system.
Black women account for a tiny share of the nation’s DAs. In 2014, 79% percent of elected prosecutors were white men, and only 1% were women of color.
Talking to Deberry, who sports hoop earrings and blue Adidas tennis shoes, it becomes clear that she has not made it to the eighth floor in spite of her intersecting identities, but rather because of them. “Because I come at this from a cultural position of traditionally being powerless, I feel like I understand what’s at stake in a different way,” she said.
DAs wield tremendous power in deciding which criminal cases get prosecuted. Unlike many prosecutors, her identity as a black, queer woman overlaps with many of those likely to be involved in our imbalanced criminal justice system.
She says she brings her unique perspective to her work. “There are just experiences in my life, certainly as a queer person, that inform the decisions I make and the policies that we implement here.”
‘The worst day of their lives’
During her time as DA, she has limited the use of cash bail, has scaled back prosecution of school-based offenses, and has focused on prosecuting violent crimes rather than low-level drug possession charges. She says these policies work to reduce the jail population and keep vulnerable people out of the criminal justice system.
She also recognizes the way the system harms LGBTQ people.
LGBTQ people also are disproportionately victims of violent crime. The Williams Institute found they were four-times as likely to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault.
Deberry knows the statistics – and the challenges they reflect. “The dirty little secret of the criminal justice system is that not only are all the defendants poor black and brown people, but all the victims are as well,” she said. “So being poor, being black, being brown, being LGBTQ, all of those things put you in a situation in this country of just having access to fewer resources.”
To combat these disparities, her office uses a broader definition of domestic violence than the state government, to include same-sex dating couples. Her office also recognizes people by their chosen gender identity, a respect not common in the criminal justice system. And their special victims unit, which focuses on sexual assault, now handles cases in which someone is targeted due to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender presentation. “If that is part of the crime, we talk about it,” Deberry said.
She wants to bring humanity to a system that can be insensitive and biased.
“The way that the system acts is to reduce people to the worst day of their lives” said Deberry, “and there’s so much focus on that particular act that we don’t spend a lot of time focused on the person.”
If Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy
For Deberry, her choice of the word queer reflects her belief that sexuality and identity are about more than who you love. “For me, queer is about culture, and about a worldview.”
As Deberry has gotten older (she is now 52), she has noticed that her queerness has ruffled fewer feathers. “It’s been interesting to me how little it comes up in this role,” she said. Most people just don’t know or don’t ask – she is not sure which.
“I think that the real stick in the system is that I’m a black woman. I think that is what really pisses people off.”
But to Deberry, her work is all part of a larger goal. “When you’re growing up in a black family, there’s a saying, ‘If Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.’ And really the truth of the world is that if, black women, black queer women, and black trans women are safe, then everybody is safe.”
She is working to create that world for her three daughters – two are 16 and one is 19 – who predominantly communicate in TikToks and GIFs. They, too, have offered Deberry a window into the evolving queer community.
“For my kids’ friends, they just try on a lot more things. They have friends who are pan, and friends who are trans, and friends who are nonbinary. They have friends who have already transitioned genders,” said Deberry “In that sense, I think those kids are brave.”
The life she has led was not one that many people could have envisioned when she was first coming out, she said. But today, “you get to be anybody as a queer woman.”
This is what pride means for her:
“Representation matters. And, you know, you hear people say, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ I don’t necessarily believe that, but I do know that somewhere out there, seeing me is meaningful to somebody – just like seeing Barbara Jordan was meaningful to me. And so that’s really what pride means for me. That you get to see the full range of who you get to possibly be.”
At top, photo of Satana Deberry by Becca Schneid, The 9th Street Journal
It was five days after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, and T. Greg Doucette was mad.
Doucette, a criminal defense and small business attorney in Durham, was angry with the way police were treating protesters: beating them, pepper-spraying them, and, in one case, even trampling them with a horse. And so, around noon on May 30, Doucette did what he often does when he wants to gripe: he tweeted, creating a thread of 10 videos showing instances of police brutality toward protesters.
His thread went viral, retweeted by Trevor Noah and John Cusack and scores of others. Twitter analytics showed it reached millions of users. Suddenly people started sending him thousands of videos of police violence, and Doucette kept adding to the thread, with a counter so people could keep track. He gained 100,000 followers (on top of his previous 30,000). Soon, the “Police Brutality Mega-Thread” had ballooned to hundreds of clips.
“It was like, holy shit, this has gone beyond what I expected,” he said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And I got to figure out how to manage it.”
Doucette’s sudden Twitter fame was partly a reflection of the moment — a nation waking up to the pervasive problem of police violence — and partly a product of his Twitter addiction (he’ll often tweet 100 times a day).
But though the 100,000 Twitter followers were new, the blistering honesty of the thread was not.
Whether he’s insulting Jeff Sessions (“human gutter trash”) or skewering the UNC Board of Governors, Doucette will give you his unvarnished opinion. Since 2017, he has hosted a podcast called “#Fsck ‘Em All,” in which he rails against corruption and abuse in the justice system as well as what he calls “political f*ckery.”
Recently, he’s taken to YouTube to challenge Van Jones, a news commentator who gave a TED Talk titled “What if a U.S. presidential candidate refuses to concede after an election?” In the video, Van Jones explains how a president could exploit “legal loopholes” in the Constitution to stay in office.
“Van Jones is WRONG,” Doucette contends in his 50-minute YouTube video. It is quintessential Doucette — funny, thorough, nerdy and crass.
“There is no profanity in the presentation, but I do tend to cuss a lot,” he says, hovering at the bottom left of the screen and wearing a t-shirt from North Carolina Central University School of Law. Thirty seconds later, he calls his video “boring as shit.”
The video has attracted over 130,000 views — and some controversy. When someone in the comments section disputed one of his claims, Doucette weighed in: “Basically every comment and reply you’ve made here is wrong, it’s actually impressive! Enjoy the Biden administration.”
He’s a rascal and a reformer, a crusader for justice, or — if you’re on the receiving end of his Twitter onslaught — a pain in the neck.
“If you’re being a dick, he’ll push back,” said Kahran Myers-Davis, a former attorney at Doucette’s firm. “He’ll push back on you on Twitter, he’ll push back on you in public. He’ll push back on people in his real life who aren’t living their values or who are being unethical or condescending or rude. That’s just who he is.”
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Both times I interviewed Doucette, he appeared on my screen wearing black headphones and a gray shirt that said “NCCU Trial Advocacy Board” (does he only wear NCCU shirts?). Bald and 39 years old, he’s a self-described “full-time curmudgeon, part-time Twitter celebrity, occasional attorney.”
Doucette talks like he tweets: non-stop, unfiltered, his words laced with zingers and occasional f-bombs, his face lit with an impish smile.
Unlike most advocates for criminal justice reform, who come from the left, he’s a conservative, though he abandoned the Republican party after President Trump’s election in 2016 (he’s now registered as unaffiliated). His watchdog mentality reflects his skepticism about the state.
“I don’t trust the government,” he said. “If you allow the government to steamroll people that don’t have power, they’re gonna steamroll the people that do, the first chance they get.”
His strategy is simple. “You have to keep the government in its little box. And if it ever steps out of the box, you smack it in the face and you put it back in the box.”
Doucette grew up in Virginia Beach in a home where his mother and stepfather fought a lot.
“I grew up in the type of home many would consider ‘white trash,’” Doucette wrote on the website for his state Senate campaign in 2016. “Poor, frequent substance abuse, more frequent domestic violence (something so ‘normal’ in my life I didn’t even know it was called ‘domestic violence’ until law school).”
In high school, he was recruited by Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its computer engineering program, but he decided on attending North Carolina State University because tuition was cheaper.
Then, a setback: his parents refused to provide him with tax information, so Doucette couldn’t qualify for financial aid. He dropped out, worked odd jobs, lived out of his truck and used his girlfriend’s dorm room to shower.
When he finally got enough money to enroll, he became president of the UNC Association of Student Governments, a group that includes student representatives from schools across North Carolina, including NC State. He eventually graduated with a degree in computer science.
Doucette was fun but in a “nerdy” kind of way, said Ashley Yopp, who met him through the Association of Student Governments. At parties, instead of playing beer pong, Doucette would be deep in conversation with someone about a new idea.
“He talks big, but he doesn’t put on airs,” Yopp said. “He is who he is.”
In August 2009, Doucette enrolled in NCCU’s School of Law, a historically Black college in Durham. He picked NCCU because it was cheaper than UNC. After graduating, he wanted to start a nonprofit called “NC SPICE” that would be an incubator for other attorneys trying to set up their practices.
“The logo was a pepper grinder with the scales of justice, really slick, man,” he said, rummaging through his computer for a picture.
But Doucette hit a speed bump when the IRS stopped processing applications for nonprofit groups. So Doucette started his own firm “kind of by accident.” He chose Durham because of the resources and connections at NCCU. He was sworn in as an attorney in 2012. (He eventually founded the nonprofit and now works as its executive director.)
He started out focusing on business litigation and higher education law. He fell into criminal law by happenstance.
“For whatever reason,” he said, “I still had this old-school Republican notion that criminal defense lawyers are just icky creatures.”
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In November 2013, Doucette took on a client who was a student at NCCU and had been caught selling weed. It became a turning point in his legal career.
During their first conversation, according to Doucette, the student said he wanted to be “Durham’s weed man.” The student had brought a business plan on how to sell weed, complete with marketing projections and a color-coded map of everywhere in the country it was legal.
“You know how you watch movies, and you hear the record-scratch moment, and everyone freezes? That’s how it was during the client interview,” Doucette recalled.
Though he thought it would be impossible to help the student receive a lenient sentence, Doucette took on the case.
In February 2014, Doucette defended the student in court by arguing that the evidence for the case be suppressed. To his surprise, the court accepted his argument and dismissed the case.
Later, in the hallway of the Durham courthouse, the client grabbed Doucette’s arm.
“Bro, you are a white Jesus,” Doucette remembers him saying. “That was a miracle. Give me your business cards. I’m going to send all of my customers to you.”
Sure enough, Doucette soon got a call. “[The student] said you’re a miracle worker. I caught a charge. I need your help,” the caller told him. The next day, Doucette got two more calls. Then, in March, on his birthday, Doucette received an email announcing someone had bought him a domain: www.durhamweedlawyer.com. The client had put his marketing skills to work.
“So it ended up, by the middle of 2015, most of the people in Durham who were selling weed in a given part of town, I was their defense attorney,” Doucette said.
To this day, many of his clients are still charged with drug-related crimes. He also represents protesters, whether from Moral Monday or Black Lives Matter — a part of his practice he describes as his “ministry.”
“I do stuff on Twitter, but I also like being in the courtroom and being able to defend people who are being oppressed by their government,” he said.
At its peak, his law firm, which is located on 311 East Main Street, had multiple attorneys, interns and a receptionist. Then, in 2016, he made a longshot bid for state Senate in a district that includes Durham County. Though he won more votes than any Republican to run for the seat and got an endorsement from INDY Week, he still lost badly to incumbent Mike Woodard.
It was an “incredibly stupid” decision, he said — and it almost bankrupted his firm.
Immersing himself in his campaign meant less time for marketing and finding new clients. His business crumpled. His attorneys left. The next year was dreadful for Doucette.
“I’ve fallen into this rat race of churning through cases at the law firm to make rent each month,” he wrote in a blog post in April 2017. “But don’t really feel like I’m moving forward toward any given objective beyond rent-paying (which is a fantastically low goal in life). It’s terribly frustrating, especially for someone who’s climbed up from how far down I was back in 2000. And the way forward is a complete mystery to me.”
Today, Doucette is the only employee at his firm. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, he works most days from home, where he lives with his wife, Jeanne Chen, an optometrist he married in October, and with his “kids”: a dog (Chance) and two cats (Biscuit and Oliver). When he goes into the office two times a week, it’s very quiet, and he keeps iTunes playing in the background.
Beneath the cocky exterior, Doucette feels for others. Since 2015, he has organized an annual fundraiser to provide groceries for underprivileged elementary school kids in Durham. This year, he raised over $55,000. Lowes lent him an 18-wheeler to transport the 3,642 bags of groceries.
“He had that truly human ability to put himself into people’s situations and to care for them as individuals,” recalled Myers-Davis, Doucette’s former attorney. “Many of his clients of the firm, even folks that I’ve worked with, have come back and said, ‘You know, I’m doing this and this because Greg gave me advice, not as my attorney, but as a person who really cared about me.’”
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His strong feelings against police violence aren’t new. He says he has been sharing videos of police misconduct for the past 13 years.
“Do I hate police?” he wrote in one of his tweets. “No. I hate raging incompetent cowboys w/ badges financed by my tax money who clearly haven’t had an eye exam recently.”
Doucette has also been ranting about police misconduct on his “#Fsck ‘Em All” podcast. Like its creator, the podcast is a little geeky. “Fsck” is the name of a computer software tool for checking the consistency of a file system; Doucette describes his podcast as “your weekly consistency check on America’s political and legal filesystems.” It’s also a source of income: for $3 to $25 per month, fans can gain exclusive access to bonus episodes and “Become part of the #Fsck community!”
In his slight southern drawl, Doucette calls out cops from across the country: a North Carolina sex crimes detective who committed sex crimes, a Florida deputy who framed motorists for drug offenses, Texas cops who beat a domestic violence victim.
“He is showing that you don’t have to be Black to call out social injustice,” said Deyaska Sweatman, one of Doucette’s law school classmates. “His megaphone is loud, not just because he’s really good in the Twitterverse. But his megaphone is loud because he really, really cares. He really has been fighting this fight from the beginning.”
In photo above, Doucette in front of the Durham County courthouse. Photo courtesy of T. Greg Doucette.
Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered last year in Burlington. The person charged with killing the 18-year-old and two others had multiple prior violent convictions, including homicide, but was released on probation.
“When he committed armed robbery, it was like this murder didn’t exist,” Jones told the 9th Street Journal. “He got a smack on the hand and probation.”
Now, Jones says he is fighting against policies that he considers to be too lenient on violent offenders. He’s particularly concerned about plea deals for people who have been previously convicted of a violent crime.
District Attorney Satana Deberry’s annual report shows that she relied heavily on pleas for murder convictions — just three of 25 convictions were decided by a jury trial, doubling the previous year’s total number of plea convictions.
Jones took the microphone at a town hall event Thursday to ask about her office’s role in keeping the community safe when releasing violent offenders.
“How can that be of any good to the community?” Jones asked. “How do you all play a part in being responsible for turning that murderer loose back into the community?”
“This is not a science,” Deberry responded. “We cannot predict down the road what’s going to happen. I’m sorry about what happened with your grandson … What I can say is we don’t take any homicide plea lightly.”
During the event held at St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church near North Carolina Central University and attended by hundreds, community members, like Jones, questioned Deberry’s progressive stance on prosecution.
In her first year in office, Deberry has discouraged cash bail for lower-level crimes and welcomed less traditional methods such as restorative justice. But she has weathered her fair share of criticism. Half of her staff has changed since she took over in January 2019, with some quitting over disagreements about her approach.
Deberry used Thursday’s town hall to tout her accomplishments from her first year in office, which include:
Prioritizing more serious crimes
Deberry reported a 12 percent drop in the jail population since enacting a policy to no longer seek cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors and minor felonies. The goal: to not punish people who can’t afford to pay with jail time.
“We don’t want to send people to prison. We don’t think that’s our job,” Deberry said. “We want to reserve the criminal justice system for those people who we don’t really have tools to deal with. Those are the people who commit the most serious crimes.”
Instead of spending more time on lower-level offenses, Deberry said her office has prioritized more serious crimes. Her office got 25 homicide convictions in her first year in office, 10 more than the previous year.
Deberry has prioritized cutting down Durham’s backlog of homicide cases. In one year, she has closed one-third of them.
Calling for cooperation to curb gun violence
Nearly 200 people were shot in Durham last year. At the recent town hall event, Deberry moderated a panel discussing how her office was responding to gun violence.
Officials in Deberry’s office said they have focused on collaborating with law enforcement and prosecuting people who are involved in gangs or “in close proximity to violence.” But they can’t keep the community safer on their own, they said.
Deberry urged witnesses to come forward to help combat gun violence, explaining that her office works to protect witnesses.
“On television … you see people put a bullet into a machine and the machine spits out a mugshot. We don’t have that technology,” Deberry said. “The absolute best evidence in any case is you.”
Implementing alternative practices
Deberry has expanded the use of restorative justice, a practice that voluntarily brings the victim and the accused together to promote healing.
Her office has also expanded referrals to a cognitive behavioral intervention program. This course, which helps people who may have committed crimes improve decision-making, used to be available only after conviction, but now people can be referred before trial.
“Our goal is not just to punish crime, it is to reduce crime. We want people to not come back to the system,” Deberry said.
Deberry’s office also helped wipe $1.5 million in traffic debt that had barred thousands of people from reinstating their driver’s licenses.
At top: Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn speaks at a town hall event for the District Attorney’s office on Thursday, Jan. 30. Photo by Corey Pilson
CORRECTION: This story has been updated. An earlier version misstated where Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered.
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.
Adam Merritt caught a ride home from work and pulled up to find his house full of cops. Someone had tried to break into the house and shot Merritt’s roommate.
The police told Merritt that his roommate had just left in an ambulance. Merritt wanted to meet him at the hospital, but he couldn’t. His ride already left and his license was suspended.
“They wouldn’t let me in my house, and I didn’t have money for an Uber. I was just cold standing outside with nowhere to go,” Merritt said.
Over a year later, his roommate has made a full recovery. But Merritt still looks back on how frustrating it was to be stuck in front of his house that day. “That was probably the peak point of how not having a license was just awful,” he said.
Merritt’s license was suspended because he never paid a speeding ticket from 2014. He was 19 years old at the time and he got two tickets in the span of a couple months. After going to court once, he thought he had resolved both charges. Three years later, he was pulled over for driving without a seatbelt and found out that he still had an outstanding charge.
According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, roughly one in five adults in Durham County had a suspended or revoked driver’s license in 2018. Almost 80 percent were people of color.
Now Merritt is one of nearly 40,000 people eligible to get their licenses back. The Durham Expunction and Restoration Program was launched a year ago by the city’s Innovation Team, which collaborates with academia, community organizations, and the private sector to research and address social issues in Durham. The “R” of DEAR — license restoration — began under former District Attorney Roger Echols and continued after Satana Deberry unseated him in the 2018 election.
Each charge or conviction revisited must be at least two years old and cannot include high-risk traffic charges, such as DWI or speeding in a school zone. The average case is more than 16 years old.
“I feel like we owe Roger Echols a lot for initiating this, but DA Deberry has been an amazing champion,” said Ryan Smith, project manager of the Durham Innovation Team. “If anything, DA Deberry has leaned more into it.”
Deberry explained that not having a license in a place like Durham is a big deal, especially because the city lacks a reliable public transportation system. “If you can’t drive, you can’t go to work, you can’t take your kids to school,” she said.
After a Durham driver gets a traffic ticket, they receive a court date where they have the opportunity to dispute or ask to reduce their charge. But the fee for appearing in traffic court — not including the traffic fine itself — is up to $188.
“What happens when poor people get tickets they cannot pay? You either don’t show up because you can’t afford it, or you show up and you get hit with the fines and fees and you don’t pay it,” Deberry said. Either option would result in a suspended license.
Since the program started last December, Deberry has been celebrating what she calls the “Year of Jubilee,” meaning a time of forgiveness. In a speech she gave at Duke Law School, she said that DEAR is the most successful initiative that she has ever been a part of.
With the help of a local nonprofit called Code the Dream, DEAR created a website to let people know whether they have benefitted from the mass relief program. Anyone can type in their name and birthday to see if their traffic charges have been dropped or their fines and fees have been forgiven.
Smith, project manager of the Durham Innovation Team, said that his ultimate goal is to expand the program to other counties, especially because people often rack up traffic violations in multiple jurisdictions.
The program is viewed as a success not just within North Carolina but throughout the country. The NC Bar Foundation awarded DEAR the Pro Bono Project of the Year in 2019. What Works Cities — a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative — also announced in November that it will partner with the Durham Innovation Team to help other cities develop similar programs and reform efforts.
But despite the accolades, DEAR doesn’t have data on how many people actually have gotten their licenses back.
According to Deberry, almost no one shows up to the mass relief hearings. People only know they have had their suspensions lifted through visiting the website or the DEAR office. But Smith said only 1,600 people have searched and found their names on the website so far.
Deberry attributed the disconnect to a publicity issue. “If I don’t read the Herald Sun, the News and Observer, or the Independent, if that’s not the kind of stuff that shows up in my social media feed, how would I know?” she asked.
Merritt also didn’t know that his costs had been dropped. He had no idea the license restoration program even existed until he was directed to the DEAR office by the judge in his most recent traffic court hearing.
Merritt’s drivers license suspension was lifted Oct. 24. “[DEAR] helped me a lot… I just had a baby a couple months ago, and they probably saved me around $800, almost $900,” he said.
But Merritt still has yet to get his license back.
“The DMV is another beast,” said Laura Holland, a DEAR attorney. There is a $65 license restoration fee and another $50 fee if the driver did not mail in their physical license before it was suspended. She said that oftentimes she will help people get all the way to the finish line, and then they’ll say, “Well, I can’t afford to pay that $115.”
Smith calls this the last mile problem.
Another barrier is that the DMV updates its records manually, so there is often a significant delay between when the suspension is dropped and when someone can pay to reclaim their license. “They tell me 48 hours, and I’m like, that’s malarkey. Complete malarkey,” Holland said. “We think it is more like eight months, to be honest with you.”
Merritt went to the DMV last week because he has an interview coming up for a job that requires him to have a license. He said he wants to get a better job so he can support his newborn son. But after waiting in line for several hours, prepared to pay the final fee, they told him his name was not in the system and he would have to come back another time.
While the DEAR program has helped lift thousands of Durham residents’ license suspensions, the city can’t track the number of people who have successfully gotten their licenses back. According to Holland, they plan to request that data from the DMV at the end of the year.
“Those same people who we know couldn’t pay the fines and fees also can’t pay $115 to get their license back, or any of the myriad other administrative hoops that the DMV has created,” Deberry said. “But we wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t done this. This was a start, and now we’ve got to figure out the next step.”
In photo at top, DEAR attorney Laura Holland works on driver’s license restoration cases. Photo by Erin Williams | The 9th Street Journal