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Posts tagged as “District Court”

In God they trust: A courthouse prayer group offers a mindful break

In the Durham County Courthouse, a courtroom is a place for trials, arguments and rulings. It’s where attorneys lose cases and defendants receive jail time, a place where people debate, cry and curse. But on Wednesdays from 12:45 to 1:00pm, one courtroom on the second floor becomes a sanctuary for the courthouse staff prayer group. 

To its members, the group is a safe haven – a mindful escape from the daily chaos of their jobs. 

Chief District Court Judge Pat Evans joined 15 years ago as an attorney. Today, she attends every meeting and leads most prayers. 

“It’s like our anchor,” Evans says. “In courts, we see a lot of stuff. It’s very traumatizing, but we always know that we can come here and be rejuvenated to finish the rest of the week.”

In court, God’s name is thrown around as a matter of procedure. Witnesses must place their hand on a Bible before they testify. They swear by God “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” but rarely with any religious conviction. The prayer group wants to put meaning back into these words.

It was started in 2001 by now-retired clerk Darlene Pate to unite the courthouse staff. Pate wanted to remind them of their shared faith and give them a space to reflect. 

Each week during their lunch breaks, judges, magistrates, translators and prosecutors borrow the courtroom of Clerk Archie Smith III —a judge and chief administrator in the courthouse— to host their prayer session.

One Wednesday, District Court Judge Doretta Walker comes from criminal court. She just finished ruling on an assault case. 

Courthouse interpreter, Maria Owens, comes from civil court. She spent the last half hour translating for a couple’s custody hearing. She mediated as a mother and father fought over their infant son.

Evans comes from traffic court, where she had a full docket. Her afternoon promises more of the same.

After half a dozen other staff members enter, they arrange the desk chairs from the lawyer’s tables into a rough semi-circle. Sometimes, they turn off the fluorescent lights, letting the afternoon sun spill through the windows. 

These adjustments convert the courtroom from a place of tension to a peaceful oasis.

A small printed packet guides the group. It provides a theme, a piece of scripture and a paragraph or two of insight. 

On October 6th, the theme is “helping one another.” 

“Encourage one another and build each other up… always strive to do what is good for each other,” one member reads. 

Then she asks each participant what they want to pray for.

Darrin Corbin, a District Court magistrate, mentions his stepfather who suffers from congestive heart failure. While Corbin is in this prayer meeting, his stepfather is in a hospital in New York.

Owens would like to pray for her mother-in-law, who recently suffered an aneurysm.

Evans echoes those prayers and adds one of her own: that people will vote in Durham’s municipal primary election. Then she leads a prayer. 

Eyes close and heads bow. Some people rock back and forth in their chairs. They nod, whisper prayers of their own, and hum on beat with the judge’s voice. Every few words, someone offers “yes, Lord” or “thank you, God.” 

When the session ends, participants linger, joking and catching up. They comment on each other’s outfits, especially those of the judges, who are rarely seen sans long black robes. 

“Love y’all,” they say while parting ways. 

In two decades, the group has almost never missed a meeting. It’s lasted through a building move, multiple retirements and now, a pandemic.

As COVID-19 raged through North Carolina, the courthouse stayed open, so the group continued to gather there. Numbers dwindled, but those who couldn’t come sent in prayers from home. Those who did come practiced social distancing. At each meeting’s end, in lieu of parting hugs, they took turns tapping elbows. 

“We never considered not meeting,” Evans says. “We didn’t sit up next to each other, but it was even more important that we gathered and prayed and sought God’s protection together.”

The prayer group is not publicized around the courthouse, but people from all departments show up. Though it is a Christian prayer group, all are welcome. And by gathering during their personal lunch breaks, Evans says, the group avoids any conflict between church and state.

On some weeks, the clerk’s courtroom is full, with a dozen staff filling the gallery. On others, three people may meet. 

Brittany Clinton, an assistant district attorney, started coming to sessions a few months ago. Like most new members, she heard about the group “through the grapevine.” 

In a job where uncertainty is guaranteed, the prayer group gives Clinton something to rely on.

“After we finish each session, it’s like a breath of fresh air,” she says. “It makes me feel a little bit lighter, like I can go ahead and make it through the rest of the day.”

Walker has attended prayer group meetings for over five years. She’s saved every printed packet, storing them in a drawer at home. 

“I like to pull them out and read them from time to time,” she says. “I can look back and see that my prayers have been answered.”

Evans has had her prayers answered too. For one, her husband, whose medical issues heighten the risks of severe illness from COVID-19, has stayed healthy throughout the pandemic. 

But a prompt in a recent meeting reminded her of one prayer she’s still waiting to see answered. “Think of something you’ve given up on,” it read. “Ask God to show you how He’s still working on it.”

For the past 30 years, Evans has prayed for the violence in Durham to stop. 

“Not to be curtailed, but to totally stop,” she says. 

Her criminal court docket is too long.

In 2020, a record-breaking 318 people got shot in Durham County, nearly a 70% increase from 2019. Though in line with gun violence trends globally, these numbers are hard for Durhamites to hear, especially those who work in the courthouse. 

In this meeting, Evans prays for something to change. After a moment of silent reflection, she unclasps her hands and stands up. Then she turns to Clinton, gives her a light elbow tap, and together they walk into the hallway.

“See you next week,” Evans says. 

 It’s not a question. It’s a promise.

At the top: A group of courthouse staffers meet in their Wednesday prayer group. Chief District Court Judge Pat Evans, seated in the back, often leads the group. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Get your bearings together’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her assurances bring him little comfort.

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

 Then he rides away on his skateboard. 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

At the courthouse, replacing ‘shucks’ with modern record-keeping

The record-keeping system at the Durham courthouse is a glimpse back in time.

A large room in the Durham clerk’s office has drawers full of tightly rolled ribbons of film. An assistant clerk feeds a strip of “microfilm” into an old-fashioned grey machine and turns a knob. The black and white screen shows court records from as recently as twelve years ago.

Court records at the Durham courthouse are still kept on microfilm. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

A few steps over, there are stacks of large judgment books, bound in canvas and leather. Inside the books, in carefully crafted cursive, live the names of defendants and plaintiffs alongside their verdicts from cases until 2007. 

The clerk’s office is like a museum of record-keeping from the 1900s, with systems and documents that are reminiscent of generations past. Durham is typical of the rest of the state. It is still reliant on ancient computers and cardboard boxes stuffed with files.

Records from as recent as 2007 were still logged in leather-bound books – in cursive handwriting. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

But officials say help is on the way. A new initiative will bring a new electronic records system to Durham and other North Carolina courts over the next five years.

Mending a “Patchwork Quilt”

Archie Smith, the clerk for Durham Superior Court, says the state’s courthouses have been relying on a “patchwork quilt” of technology that “began to show its age.” 

In 2015, the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court studied the needs of courts throughout the state. One of the top priorities was technology.

As a result, the Administrative Office of the Courts signed a contract in July with Tyler Technologies, a Texas software company, to move North Carolina to a modernized system using their Odyssey case management tool.  

Christopher Mears, a spokesperson for the state office of the courts, said the specifics are still being ironed out.

“We ultimately are paving the way for a virtual courthouse,” he said in an email.

When it’s finished, Durham and other counties will get modern integrated systems so clerks can manage documents, keep track of finances, and help lawyers file their motions online.

The project is expected to roll to a few pilot counties by March 2021. 

“From Murphy to Manteo, everyone will be on the same system,” Smith said. 

Frozen in Time

Today, clerks are surprisingly dependent on paper and outdated technologies. Consider the situation in Durham’s District Court, which relies on antique-looking monochrome computers and envelopes known as “shucks.”

Shucks. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

The District Court clerk’s office first receives law enforcement agencies’ records, which are often adorned with hasty, illegible scrawl. 

Clerks then stuff these documents in color-coded shucks: grey for infractions, brown for traffic violations, white for criminal cases, and yellow for DWIs. 

An assistant clerk sits in front of a green and black screen, reminiscent of arcade games like “Space Invaders” from the age before color displays. She manually transfers each case’s details the court’s electronic database. 

Then, the shucks are moved to cardboard boxes, which fill a narrow room up to the ceiling. 

The monochrome monitors look like they were made in the 1980s. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

Sometimes, the documents are scanned and put onto CDs. The woman who scans them dips her hands in a pink tub of fingertip moistener, used by archivists who sort through thousands of parchments daily, so she can better grip the paper. 

The difficulty in finding an old case depends on how it was archived. If someone requests a file from the late 1900s, staff must leaf through the aged pages of the leather-bound judgement books or hand-spin the microfilm tapes on a machine that bears a striking resemblance to the first television. 

Court records are like time capsules, since documents remain in the format they were originally stored, Williams said. 

“Helping People at the Lowest Points in their Lives” 

The goal of the new system: make the court more efficient. 

“I expect that we’ll be completely electronic, other than scratch paper that you’d write notes to yourself,” Smith said. After all, North Carolina courts are running out of space to keep paper files. 

Electronic records sound promising. William Sheppard, Chief Deputy of the Dekalb County Clerk of Superior Court in Georgia, oversaw the county’s successful transition to the Odyssey Case Management software in 2016.

Boxes and boxes of shucks | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

He says the system has saved time for the county’s staff and clients. Financial processing that once took two weeks is now complete within a day. 

But paper hasn’t disappeared from the courthouse. 

“We call it paper on-demand,” Sheppard said. It is still available, but they try to avoid print where possible. 

Blair Williams, Wake County’s Superior Court clerk, says he wants the technology to help humanize the court system. 

“I want to eliminate the keystrokes because they keep us from doing what we do best: helping people at the lowest points in their lives,” he said. 

“It Can’t Tell the Story that the Paper Can” 

Williams says it won’t be easy to get court staffers throughout the state to give up their familiar procedures. .

And others are wary about depending on technology. Lynn Vaughan, an assistant clerk of courts in Durham, said, 

“The computer system might be great, but it can’t tell the story that the paper can.” 

Technology often has glitches. Tyler Technologies, the creator of the Odyssey system, has faced reports of causing wrongful arrests, prolonged jail time, and premature releases in Alameda County, Calif., Shelby County, Tenn., and Marion County, Ind

These issues may stem from problems with the Odyssey software, including incompatibility with prior electronic systems or data-entry backlogs that delay cases from getting updated. 

Jennifer Kepler, a spokesperson for Tyler Technologies, defends the software. She said that

budget deficits in Alameda accounted for the county’s premature adoption of Odyssey, against Tyler’s recommendation. In Shelby and Marion, Odyssey was being blamed for issues caused by other court technologies, she said. 

Today, Kepler says the three counties are “satisfied clients,” with Shelby and Alameda counties winning 2019 Tyler Excellence Awards for their innovative use of the software. 

However, possible difficulties with the technology remain on North Carolina’s radar.

“If there’s a failure in the system, the injury to the courthouse process would be colossal in scope,” Smith said. “As cumbersome as the old system was, there was a certain amount of security in that warm fuzzy blanket of paper.” Smith said. 

Despite those reports, Smith and Williams agree that the computerized system will be an important step forward. 

“North Carolina is blazing a path for the courts of the nation.” Smith said. 

But chucking the shucks? That might take a generation on its own.

In photo at top, shucks for District Court cases are stored in cardboard boxes. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

A courthouse moment: ‘Tuck the sweatshirt!’

Phillip Williams might have seen the sign.

It was hanging off the door Williams used to enter Courtroom 4D. “Pull your pants up and tuck in your shirts,” it said in Comic Sans. “If you are not dressed appropriately your case WILL NOT BE HEARD…”

The sign outside Courtroom 4D.

If he saw the sign, he didn’t follow its rules. When his turn came to face District Court Judge Brian Wilks, Williams ambled to the center of the room, a pink sweatshirt hanging untucked on his lanky frame, boxers peeking over his jeans.

The bailiff took one look at Williams and heaved a long, loud sigh.

“Out,” he grumbled, gesturing for Williams to leave the courtroom, fix his appearance, and then return. Williams gave a half shrug, grabbing distractedly at his unfastened red belt and walking back into the hallway. 

When Williams strolled back in, he’d fulfilled half the requirements on the sign: the red belt was tighter around his waist, the boxers now safely tucked beneath jeans. “Straight?” he asked.

The bailiff wasn’t satisfied.

“OUT!” he shouted at Williams, directing him back into the hallway, eyes wide in disbelief. “Tuck the sweatshirt!” 

The courtroom erupted in giggles. Judge Wilks rested his head on his knuckles.

“Ahh,” Williams turned around for his second try, stumbling to the door of the courtroom as he shoved his pink sweatshirt into his jeans. He returned to the dias looking uncomfortable, a stray rumple of sweatshirt spilling over his belt.

The courtroom chuckles subsided as Judge Wilks leveled his gaze at Williams, who rocked from foot to foot, waiting for his scolding. 

“Man!” the judge suddenly exclaimed. “This is no fashion statement!”

Williams stopped rocking. 

“I guarantee you, if you see me not in this robe, off this bench, I won’t have my shirt tucked in!” the Judge joked. “Guarantee! ‘Cause it’s not cool!”

There came the wave of giggles again – muffled laughs into shirt collars, hearty guffaws from the back, and even a snort from Williams’ attorney. 

But the judge said there was a good reason for the rule on courtroom attire.

“The climate we live in these days… you never can tell what people got,” he said. “I’ve watched the safety video, and no lie – a gentleman as slim as you are, right? He had on a sweatshirt, and he pulled out about 19 guns and knives from around his waist. He even had a shotgun down his pants!”

At that image, two ladies in the front bursted into laughter, shoulder-to-shoulder in chuckles.

“See, if something pops off in this courtroom, I can dive behind my desk,” the Judge mimed bending over. “But that’s not gonna protect you all

“My job, and the deputies’ job, is to protect you. And to protect everybody that, unfortunately, has to come into this courtroom.

Back to business. “So,” he turned to look at Williams, “This is a motion to continue?”

Elsewhere in the courtroom, several other defendants waiting their turn before the judge quickly but quietly tucked in their shirts, sweatshirts and jackets.

A courthouse moment: ‘Nobody takes this court seriously. Nobody.’

On Feb. 23, Vi Ong was charged with felony larceny. He was ordered to pay $149 in restitution to Target and complete community service.

He’s also on the hook for an additional $200 of “court costs”: $147.50 for the “general court of justice” fee, $12 for the facilities fee, $2 for the DNA fee, and several others. Five dollars will go to an ambiguous “service” fee.

Twenty dollars of his court costs — 10% — go toward just setting up an installment plan for his payments.

Once he makes those payments and completes community service, his case can be dismissed.

Now, Ong is in court for a compliance hearing. Judge Pat Evans will be checking on his progress.

Ong tells the court he recently faced an unexpected expense; his car broke down, forcing him to pay for repairs. He asks Judge Pat Evans for an extension on his court payments. 

Already that day, Judge Evans had postponed hearings and, in one case, dismissed a judgement entirely. When younger defendants say they’ll represent themselves, she provides a motherly nudge and recommends that they apply for court-appointed counsel.

But she doesn’t have that kind of patience for Ong. 

When Judge Evans flips over the envelope with Ong’s file, she makes no effort to put on a poker face — her eyes widen when she realizes his case has been carried over since February.

She orders him to pay the entire amount — all $249 — by the end of the day.

“Nobody takes this court seriously,” she says. “Nobody.”

The courtroom is silent, save the low mutter of “She’s not playing” from someone in the back. 

Ong heads out of the courtroom, down four floors to the cashier’s office, where’s he’s expected to make a payment that he cannot afford.

“I’m a little bit confused,” he says, “because the last time, the judge told me that I have up to a year to do the community service and to pay.”

Just that morning, Ong says, the clerk reassured him that he would qualify for an extension and that he shouldn’t worry about having to pay yet.

Ong says that he doesn’t know if Judge Evans even remembers his case or what she told him at his previous hearing. He uses a credit card but says he doesn’t know how he’s going to be able to find the money this month to pay down the balance.

“So now,” he says, “I have to scramble to make up the difference.”