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Posts tagged as “District Court”

A judge in twilight: impartiality, partisanship, and a life on the bench

Judge James Hill looks at home sitting on the bench wedged in the dim corner of Courtroom 5A in the Durham County Courthouse. A gleaming silver medallion emblazoned with the North Carolina state seal and mounted to the wall gives the space an air of grandeur. But Hill’s warmth is palpable, even with the plastic shield that separates him from the rest of the courtroom.

On a Wednesday afternoon last October, a defense attorney explains that her client is prepared to fulfill his two-day jail sentence, “but doesn’t want to lose his job.” 

The young man clasps his hands together and nervously explains that he is contracted to work an upcoming three-day shift but can’t report to his job on time if he is locked up.  

“You could go to jail right now,” the silver-haired, bespectacled Hill says, with a southern drawl. “And I could let you out at 5:00 a.m.” 

 The defendant’s eyes widen with relief, as a muscular bailiff handcuffs him. This savviness has served Hill well since he was first elected to the Durham County Court in 2002.  

For almost two decades, Hill, 71, was a fixture at the courthouse. But after losing his campaign for reelection in 2018, he now only comes to the courthouse occasionally as an “emergency” judge. Hill’s career is the story of a man who prided himself on his impartiality, only to suffer the consequences of a very public courtroom controversy – and  the arrival of partisan judicial elections. 

After being elected as judge in a nonpartisan election in 2002, he faced no opposition for his seat on the bench in 2006, 2010, or 2014. In 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly put political parties on the ballot for District Court judicial elections. 

The state legislature’s decision paved the way for a Democrat to challenge Hill in overwhelmingly blue Durham County. For the first time since 2002, voters saw that Hill was a Republican and that his opponent, Clayton Jones, a former public defender and assistant district attorney in Durham County, was a Democrat.

In the race, Hill’s experience and candor on the bench were liabilities. Jones garnered 76% of the vote, while Hill won only 24%. 

The Beginnings

 Aside from the three years he spent in Alabama at Cumberland School of Law, Hill is a lifelong resident of Durham County. His road to the judiciary began when he decided he wanted to be a lawyer in 7th grade. 

 The self-described “little country boy” from Rougemont is the youngest of three, born to hard working parents who both had a 9th grade education. 

 “If you would have taken a blind look at my background, you would say that guy was never going to amount to much of anything,” Hill says. 

 He worked his way through school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a laborer and carpenter, when he estimated that cost of attendance was $2,000 a year.

 As a lawyer, Hill’s practice ranged from civil and juvenile cases to murder cases. It was good preparation for the rotating hats he would later wear as a District Court judge. 

 Before the Durham County Public Defender’s Office was established in 1990, private attorneys would sign up to represent those who could not afford a lawyer. 

 Hill “got on all the court-appointed lists,” as you did back then. 

 One of his first clients was a man with an IQ of 64, which generally indicates an intellectual disability. The man had relieved himself on the busy corner of Trinity Avenue and Mangum Street during peak morning hours and had been charged with indecent exposure. 

 Hill got the man off with a Prayer for Judgment Continued—a legal device that suspends a conviction even when defendants have been found guilty or have pled guilty. To this day, Hill considers it a win.

He looks at people straight from eye to eye,” says Judge  Archie Smith, Clerk of Superior Court. “He doesn’t consider himself any better than anybody else.”  

‘I didn’t start this race to lose’ 

 In 1994, all five of the Durham District Court judgeships and three of the four Superior Court judgeships were for the taking. Then-Chief District Court Judge Kenneth Titus told The Durham Herald-Sun that it was going to be a “wicked year.” 

 After failing to score an appointment, Hill was eager for a spot on the Durham District Court bench. The Democratic primary went into a runoff. 

 Outwardly, Hill remained hopeful. 

 “I didn’t start this race to lose,” he told The Herald Sun after the vote count.

Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal, who was then a lawyer, beat Hill by some 1,100 votes in the low-turnout run-off.  

 In the years after the election, Hill, once President of the Durham County Young Democrats and treasurer of the Durham County Democratic Party, switched his party affiliation. 

 “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. It left me,” says Hill, who declines to say much more. 

In 2001, the North Carolina legislature took political affiliation off the ballot for district court races. Hill ran again with the slogan “A judge Durham will be proud of.” He touted his 25 years of legal experience and his commitment to impartiality. 

 Hill lost the open primary, but ultimately clinched the judgeship by beating William A. Marsh III by a 12-point margin in November. 

 As for his status as a Republican, “at that time, not much was made of it,” Hill says.

 On the Bench 

 To Hill, District Court is the “people’s court,” and he says he strove to run it as such. He fondly recalls bantering about construction-related technicalities with one defendant. He remembers everyone else in the courtroom being bewildered, thinking “What in the world are you talking about?”

 “But I felt like that was good for me and him,” Hill says. “To let him know I knew what he was going through.” 

 Just a year into his courtship, Hill ruled that a North Carolina law imposing a $50.00 application fee to obtain a court-appointed lawyer was unconstitutional.

 He was the first judge in the state to do so. Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson affirmed Hill’s ruling. The North Carolina Supreme Court followed suit. He recalls this as one of his proudest rulings. 

 “I didn’t really think about political repercussions,” Hill says. “I just did what I thought was right.” 

  As a jurist, Hill presided over Mental Health Court in its infancy.  He also established and ran a truancy court—which creates legal penalties for excessive repeated unexcused school absence—for more than ten years at his middle-school alma mater, Carrington Middle School, until the idea fell out of favor with the prosecutor’s office. 

 Elections Made Partisan 

The 2018 judicial election was unlike any Hill had faced before. The North Carolina General Assembly had just recently made judicial elections partisan again, and Hill would have to run as a Republican candidate in a deeply blue district. 

In his last term, he also suffered a blow to his professional reputation. 

 Asked in a pre-election interview what decision made by the incumbent he most disagreed with, Jones, Hill’s opponent, cited a moment in Hill’s that stained his candidacy.

In a video viewed almost 20,000 times since its release by INDY Week in 2014, Hill lambasts an estranged couple at a custody hearing.

 The nearly seven-minute clip from the conclusion of a two-day hearing shows Hill repeatedly calling RiShawna and Collin Morrison “idiots.” 

 “Y’all the one that crawled into bed and had sex and made that baby,” Hill tells them. “He didn’t ask to be born.” 

 When RiShawna protests Hill’s ruling for joint-custody, Hill rattles off jail sentences, what he calls “trip[s] to the Durham County Bed and Breakfast”: first 24 hours, then 48, then 72, all the way up to 30 days. 

 “I’m going to jail for being a good mother?” RiShawana asks as chaos erupts. 

 RiShawana flails against the deputy who comes to restrain her and manages to free herself from his bear hug when he tries to handcuff her. Hill exits as others in the audience enter the tussle. 

 By the end, nine deputies have entered the courtroom. RiShawna, who Hill now calls a “good parent,” was reportedly cut and bruised. 

 After INDY Week broke the story, Hill received a public reprimand from the state’s Supreme Court for his behavior during the case. It was a finding for a minor violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Only 14 public reprimands have been issued since 2015. 

 Despite the reprimand, the commission’s team lauded Hill for his “good reputation in the community,” above average Judicial Performance Evaluation—4.19 compared to 3.56—and cooperation in the investigation. 

“My choice of words left something to be desired,” Hill says. “My goal in the hearing was to point out to them who the most important person in that hearing was, the child. What they were doing was hurting that child, who was innocent.”

“That was my goal,” Hill says. “That was my goal.”

During the 2018 race, Jones, a Democrat who called himself a proponent of “judicial activism,” brought Hill’s record into question, including the truancy courts. Jones said he would work to reduce the burden of fines and fees and expand pretrial release programs and drug and mental health courts.

“For 15 years, I just saw things—things that just didn’t sit right with me,” Jones said at a debate hosted by Kids Voting Durham. He referenced Hill’s habit of calling kids “babies” and his practice of shackling juveniles in court, which Hill claimed he did for the safety of the children.

Hill was unable to persuade Durham County voters to look past his affiliation with the Republican Party or the public reprimand. The even-keeled Jones cruised to victory with 76% of the vote. 

Judge Nancy Gordon, a Democrat elected to the Durham County District Court four years after Hill, takes issue with the politicization of judgeships, and she respects Hill for his impartiality. 

 “[Hill] tried really hard to not let people manipulate him with [his personal beliefs],” Gordon says, “and you get points for that.” 

Now, Hill only spends the occasional day in court, sometimes working alongside Jones. Otherwise, he goes on long morning walks, attends a prayer group on Tuesdays, and takes care of his grandson. 

“If you don’t stay busy, you’ll die,” he says. 

PHOTO ABOVE: Judge James Hill won three elections before being defeated in 2018, when Durham County compelled candidates for the bench to declare their political party.

 

Evicted for the holidays: a padlocked house, a legal maze, and a powerful landlord

When Mamie Green moved into her one-story duplex apartment, it signaled a fresh start. Her apartment – one half of the white house with red brick pillars on Harvard Avenue – was a place she could finally call her own.  

It had one bedroom and a kitchen in the back. It wasn’t perfect, but it was hers. 

A high electricity bill set her back on her rent. She had lost her job in March 2020 and was also grieving: Over the course of 18 months, she’d attended one too many family pandemic funerals.  

But unpaid rent is unpaid rent in the eyes of the court – loss and limited income aside. And without the protection of the federal eviction moratorium, Green, like many, found herself in court in defense of her home. 

On Nov. 17, she stood on the same porch she used to wave to neighbors from, as the Durham Sheriff’s department padlocked the door. Rick Soles, the property manager, put the key in the lock himself, she says. 

Green’s eviction story offers a view into a world often unseen by the public. It’s a world in which landlords can evict tenant after tenant in 90 minutes of court, a world where a complex legal system with costly court fees dictate the rules, and a world where even victories have consequences, as the eviction hearing itself still stains rental records.  

Harvard Avenue

Doctors once told Green, 53, she would never be able to live alone again. After five strokes left her right side paralyzed, she learned to talk again and retook her first steps, for the second time. 

The roles reversed between a mother and child – she lived with one of her daughters for five years as they cared for her while she recovered. Doctors told her she should move to a nursing home or continue to live with one of her four daughters.  

She uses a wheelchair and a cane now, but Green proved the doctors wrong. She moved into her new home on Oct 1, 2018 – by herself – regaining some independence with her new set of keys.

PHOTO: Mamie Green says her place on Harvard Ave. was “my castle…my home.”

“I felt so happy and thriving that Rick Soles rented to me,” she said camly, reflecting back to her first few years in the house. “It ain’t the best apartment in the world, but it’s a roof. I can say, ‘This is my castle, this is my home’.”

The lease was straightforward. She would cover electricity, water, gas and trash, among other basics. The landlord covered landscaping. Rent, $595 per month, was due the first of each month. 

Green wore many professional hats. She once was a DJ – playing songs for Durham Public School functions and other events – with her own business. She ran a cleaning business and taught dance. Whatever it took to pay the bills. 

Most recently she worked for Angelica’s Corporation – a company that supplies linens for hospitals – folding clean items piece by piece before they were distributed. Like many, in March 2020 she was laid off and applied for unemployment benefits, only to see a delayed check months later.

Her electricity bill then skyrocketed. She thinks she was charged for the entire house, not just her side of the duplex, she says. So she fell behind on rent. 

In January 2021, a $29.75 late fee was billed with her rent. Then again the next month, and another one the next. 

Green’s story is that of a pandemic nightmare – job loss, family deaths and an impending eviction. 

Round-faced with a ready smile, Green is upbeat and mild-mannered. But sometimes when talk turns to her eviction, she starts to cry. It’s not that she wants pity; in fact, she wants people to stop telling her they’re sorry for her. She just wants Soles to be held responsible for his actions. 

Her mom had died of the virus in a nursing home early in the pandemic. She was told the home would be closed to visitors because of social distancing restrictions, robbing her of a proper goodbye. 

Ten days later, she found her brother dead in his car outside his house.

Next it was her cousin, who died of COVID-19 as well. Four days later, another cousin. On June 15, 2021 she buried her father. It was one year to the day she did the same for her mother. 

“We were like peas in a pod. I could lean on them,” she said in between pauses and tears. “My support system is gone. They’re all in heaven.” 

When Soles started charging her late fees with her rent, Green began to pawn off her old DJ equipment – disco lights, Bluetooth electronics – whatever she could. Every dollar helped.

“I was doing whatever a mother would do or a person in my position would do to keep a roof over her head,” she said. 

But as of September, she owed Soles $3,658.75.

The combination of state and federal eviction moratoriums meant that while her debt grew, Soles could not kick her out of her home. But then on August 26, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling pressed play on an eviction scene that was previously paused for 14 months. 

Lost loved ones and unemployment aren’t legal reasons to miss rent under North Carolina General Statutes. Soles knew this to be true. Green, like many, learned this the hard way. 

Small Claims Court

 In Courtroom 3A of the Durham County Courthouse, small claims hearings are a depressing movie on repeat. In the gray courtroom with mahogany benches, the stage is set: plaintiff to the right, defendant to the left, the magistrate – the highest power in the room, both legally and literally – up above, behind a plexiglass screen, a subtle reminder of the past year. 

It’s Friday, Nov. 12 and starting at 9 a.m., Soles takes his place in the plaintiff’s seat. He fills the docket this morning with 63 summary ejectment hearings –legal jargon for eviction – in an hour and a half span. 

This is not Soles’ first time in Courtroom 3A. In fact, some say he’s a regular. 

Sarah D’Amato, an attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, who works in the Eviction Diversion Program, knows him well. She says he has “found his niche in the subprime housing market.”

Although Legal Aid only represents 10% of eviction cases in the county, according to D’Amato, she has challenged Soles in court numerous times, helping tenants he hopes to evict. 

There’s a pattern to Soles’ properties, she says. They are often in poor shape and offered at a lower cost. Plus, he tends to turn a blind eye to previous eviction filings or poor credit from prospective tenants’ applications. 

In fact, he is more well known for adding numerous eviction filings to his tenants’ rental histories, once they sign a lease from him. 

In North Carolina, the first step in the eviction process is when a landlord files a “Complaint in Summary Ejectment” or an eviction complaint. A court summons informs tenants they are being evicted and orders them to make an appearance in court, where a magistrate will hear their case. Failure to appear means an automatic eviction.

 Sixty-three cases back-to-back is a purposeful move by Soles: As the property manager and plaintiff, he sets the time and date of these hearings.

In a gray and white striped polo, he takes his seat with a stack of papers before him. He knows the drill – sitting stone-faced and serious – and frankly just wants his tenants’ rent. 

Tired of being beat up about evictions which could have been avoided by making payment plans instead of attacking landlords,” he wrote in an email in response to questions. 

One by one Magistrate Terry Fisher calls each tenant to the stage. They take the seat to the left, for the defendant. 

Fisher asks Soles to read the address of the property, state the monthly rent and outstanding balance. 

Four reasons constitute a legal eviction – failure to pay rent, remaining after the date of the lease, a broken lease agreement or criminal activity, such as drug trafficking. In most cases, Soles argues for the first reason. 

Next, Fisher asks the tenant to explain. Cases take only a few minutes each. 

According to Jesse McCoy, a supervising attorney for the Civil Justice Clinic at Duke Law, the three most common defenses for missed rent are unemployment, illness and transportation issues. McCoy hears these reasons in 60% of cases, he says, but none of them are legal defenses. 

One woman tells Fisher she had COVID-19 and was out of work for 25 days. 

Another man is in the same boat, 40 days out of work after a positive COVID-19 test. A household income sustained by two jobs quickly fell to zero when his wife had to quarantine at home. 

“When you’re behind on the rent, I have to do what the law says,” Fisher replies, as he signs off on complaint after complaint. 

He reminds tenants they have 10 days to appeal the ruling to District Court, in another effort to keep their home. Or they can strike a deal with Soles to pay off the remaining balance. 

If there is no action taken in 10 days, the landlord can padlock the door. 

Appealing the case may allow tenants to remain in their home, but doing so also subjects them to the tangled mess of the court system. For those without legal counsel or the ability to pay a rent bond – a court fee that allows you to remain in your home while your case continues – their case ends at small claims court. 

But for tenants whom Legal Aid advises, an appeal to District Court allows for more legal work and defense on their behalf, according to D’Amato.  

One flaw in the legal system haunts tenants regardless – an eviction filing will appear on a tenant’s rental history no matter the case outcome. Green learned the consequences of this. 

Pandemic Protections

Throughout a pandemic where stay-at-home orders became rule of law, legally removing someone from their home through an eviction was nothing but contradictory. 

Both state and federal governments agreed – the CDC Eviction Moratorium meant landlords could not evict tenants. Doing so would only contribute to the spread of the virus.  

But McCoy knew this day would end soon. And the prognosis was bad. An extended pause on evictions could only signal a mass influx of summary ejectment filings to come.

“Talk was a tsunami of evictions once the moratorium goes away,” said McCoy. “That evictions are going to be going left and right.” 

Yet he felt Durham County was better situated to handle this wave than most areas. Since 2017, an Eviction Diversion Program has helped mediate landlord and tenant disputes in court and provided legal counsel for those facing eviction. 

The problem existed long before the pandemic erupted. Durham once had the highest eviction rate among North Carolina’s ten largest counties, according to Duke Law.

From 2010 to 2018 the average cost of rent steadily increased from $792 to $1,014 across the county. Although evictions have decreased over the last decade, the county’s rising housing prices and continued development downtown present a predicament.  

The looming threat of post-moratorium evictions signaled to McCoy that something else still needed to be done. 

So he, along with Charles Holton, director of the Civil Justice Clinic, created a pop-up Eviction Advice Clinic in the Durham County Courthouse on Friday mornings.

Housing law is confusing to the average person. McCoy knows that. So the clinic offers a wealth of information about aid and assistance, and breaks down legal jargon. 

“We could be a one-stop shop, where people who are in need of emergency rental assistance will be able to come and apply for the emergency rental assistance, as well as get information about or just legal advice about an eviction case or generally about their housing situation,” he said. 

Now, North Carolina Central University is operating a similar clinic on Wednesday mornings. 

In May 2021 the Durham Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) opened, approving applicants on a first come, first served basis. Applications, found on the Durham County Department of Social Services website, were then prioritized by looming eviction filings and income. 

These funds provided $13.9 million dollars in assistance to 2,389 households. But after processing over 4,000 applications, DSS closed the application due to insufficient funds in October.  

This leaves over 3,000 applications pending.

Green was one of many who was approved for ERAP funding. But Soles didn’t accept rental assistance. And with one eviction now on her rental history, the prospect of finding a home in a limited rental market is a new challenge in itself.  

Moving Out 

 When Green first moved into the white house on Harvard Avenue, the previous tenant lingered to give her a necessary warning:

The apartment had black mold – so much mold that it made the tenant’s young daughter sick, Green was told. There were also rats. Lots of rats. 

Green wrote these things down for Soles. But he did nothing, she says, her voice racing with anger. So Green bought a bottle of Clorox for $5 a bottle. She now laughs at the thought that she could clean it herself. 

Her brother bought her a new bed for the apartment. Soon, rats chewed through its base. So he bought her another one. The same thing happened again. 

Next, Green went to Aaron’s Furniture to buy another replacement. It would ultimately take her two years to pay off the cost of the bed. But that bed too, succumbed to gnawing and little bite marks. 

Green filed a complaint with the City of Durham Neighborhood Improvement Services. An inspection of the house found cracked ceilings, foundational issues that allow pests to get in, and no functioning windows in the bedroom, among other violations.  

“LANDLORD REFUSES TO FIX HOME FOR DISABLED RESIDENT’S HOME,” reads the inspection review. “CANNOT USE RAMP AND LANDLORD REFUSES TO FIX ISSUE.”                          

Rats were not her only house guests: bees and other bugs also found a way in through cracks in the ceilings and holes in the wall. 

“I bought all these supplies to keep this thing fixed up, like I’m running school or hospital,” she said. “I don’t have that type of money.”

When she told Soles about her unwanted guests, she says he told her it was his “job to keep someone in the house, not keep stuff out.” 

With an impending eviction, Green knew her best bet was to move.

     PHOTO: Green lived in a duplex apartment in this house on Harvard Avenue.

When she was approved for ERAP funding, she was given the same advice. She was told Soles was refusing rental assistance funds and instead taking his tenants to court. 

Green had previously applied for an apartment in the new Willard Street complex through Durham Housing Authority. Over a year later, her application was approved. 

“It’s gonna be a blessing to be out of this nerve-wracking house that’s driving me crazy,” she told herself. “I felt like this was going to be a new start for me.” 

She offered Soles a settlement agreement, in hopes of erasing his eviction filing from her record. 

He rejected it. Instead, he wanted to see her in court. 

Green first faced Soles in small claims court on Oct. 13. She appealed the judgment, sending the case to District Court, and paid a prorated rent bond to stay in her house through October. 

But at the start of each month, another payment to the court is due. For November, she owed $595, one month’s rent, to fend off eviction while her case was in court. 

That money, she did not have. 

Instead of packing her bags for her move to Willard Street, Green found herself packing  boxes with nowhere to go. 

Soles told her she had four days to vacate the apartment. With an eviction filing on her rental history, Willard Street would no longer rent to her. She also lost her Section 8 housing voucher, which would have covered half of her new rent. 

“You just cost me my house. You just cost me my apartment. And you just cost me my Section 8,” she said, defeated. “He yanked the rug up from under me. He shattered my life.”

 With the little money she had saved, Green paid $89 a night to stay at La Quinta Inn. But she could only afford three nights. 

Now, she is staying with a friend in Graham, 30 minutes from Durham. She has not lived outside of Durham in almost 50 years. Her stuff is dispersed among family and friends – keeping her belongings in their cars, homes and storage units. 

As a disabled woman, the instability and stress do no favors for Green’s health. She found herself in the hospital the other week, with doctors telling her that her blood sugar, blood pressure and potassium were all off.  

“We are going to say him evicting you is the reason you’re in this predicament,” doctors told her. 

With the case appealed to District Court, Green and D’Amato will have another chance to bring up the habitability issues with the Harvard Avenue home in January. 

If she wins, the eviction can be dismissed. The file will remain on her history, but in future rental applications she can clarify that she has not been evicted. 

If Soles wins, the ruling will stand. Regardless, Green is still in the hunt for a new home – the same fresh start Harvard Avenue once gave her. 

“’I’m not giving up. I’m a fighter,” she said. “He just opened up a can of worms.”

PHOTO ABOVE:  A orange notice shows that Durham deputies padlocked Mamie Green’s house after Rick Soles ordered her evicted for failure to pay rent.

 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘Everything in there is serious.’

Judge Doretta Walker glared down at two women with matching magenta-streaked braids  who stood before her in Courtroom 4D – in the Durham County Courthouse.

One of the women, Sekia Pegram, had violated her probation and subsequently failed to appear in court. And Walker was not happy. 

 “You could go to jail for being late today,” said Walker, a District Court judge. “You’re in custody for 45 days.”

In Durham, judges are elected officials. While they are accountable to their constituents, in the day-to-day churn of the criminal legal system, Walker reigns over the courtroom. Her thick, melodic voice fills the space. She commands. She nudges. She scolds.

“I love helping people,” Walker said. “I love holding people accountable. I love making sure that they know that they need to do right.“

That morning, she wore her black robe, and her favorite matching black mask — the one imprinted with “Judge Walker” in bold white lettering.There are three Black female judges up here,” she said, “and a lot of people get us confused. So, I put my name.”

With a decade of experience on the bench, Walker sees cases from trespassing to theft on a daily basis. Felonies and other serious cases may pass through District Court up to Superior Court, but Walker understands the power she wields. 

“The consequences of a conviction, everything is serious,” she said, enunciating each syllable. “To me, everything in there is serious.”

In court, Walker defended the 45-day sentence she gave Pegram.

“She gets every single day that she gets. I was nice to her. I can’t be nice to people, and she spits in my face,” she told Pegram’s public defender, Abigail Holloway, who protested the ruling. 

The bailiff gently guided Pegram to a seat on the bench to the right of Walker and handcuffed her. She rested her cuffed hands in her lap atop acid wash jeans, and Pegram glowered as the loss of her freedom sank in. 

Judge Walker sets the pace of her courtroom.

“Do you have something for me to do?” she repeated throughout the rainy September morning.  “I know you have something for me to do now. At least this gives us something to do.”

Her eagerness sometimes edged into impatience.

“Were you just over there looking at a piece of paper?” Walker asked Assistant District Attorney Andrew House, annoyed that he had not presented her with a legal argument yet in Pegram’s hearing. 

Earlier that morning, one defendant apparently left before his case was addressed. Walker counted him as failing to appear when his case was called, although he was present earlier.  Her hands are tied if those on the docket are not in her courtroom. 

“Who are we going to deal with now?” she asked as she inclined her head to the three lean men who filed in during Pegram’s hearing. 

They sat in a row, cuffed hands in their laps. Two wore rust-colored uniforms, and the third wore a bright orange jumpsuit. The “jail line,” Judge Walker called them.  

“Come on, they’ll miss lunch,” Walker said, hurrying House, as he rifled through papers between cases. 

Next, a witness spoke in the case of Gary Burton, one of the men on the jail line. Burton faced one count of attempted larceny and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon. 

Walker asked the witness what he wanted to see from the court system.

“I’ll let this court do what it wants to,” he said sheepishly, wearing a graphic T-shirt tucked into blue jeans. 

“Speak loud,” the judge said. 

 Walker asked the stout middle-aged man what he meant.

“We’re all human,” he said. “We all make mistakes.”

He just wanted Burton to be held accountable. 

 “You are so nice,” Walker told him. “You are a wonderful person.” 

ABOVE:  District Court Judge Doretta Walker. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal

 

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.”