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Posts tagged as “Durham County Superior Court”

People skills. Check. Saying yes. Check. This is no ordinary bureaucrat.

Trial Court Administrator E. Deneen Barrier’s desk is a mess.

Pushed into a corner beside her monitor, an enormous stack of jumbled documents dominates the space. Barrier thumbs through the pile as she hunts for a jury selection calendar, flipping past paperwork from seemingly every department in the Durham County Courthouse.

Similar “pockets of danger,” as Barrier refers to them, litter the office. They include a thick stack of papers labeled “shred and destroy,” a mountain of boxes and scrambled files, and a whiteboard calendar still reading “May 2021.”

Barrier wears many hats in the courthouse, all of them involving keeping operations as smooth and organized as possible. But she doesn’t see bureaucracy the way most people do. Some might associate court management with red tape and closed doors, but Barrier said she’s centered her career around creativity, openness and a willingness to say “yes.” 

And sometimes that means learning to work with chaos.

“It’s a Broadway show,” Barrier said, referring to the courthouse. “It’s the lights, it’s the cameras, it’s the props—it’s all that.”

The problem-solver

Barrier’s office sits at the top of the courthouse, on the ninth floor — the same floor as the judges’ chambers and the District Attorney’s office. Her window offers astonishing views of downtown Durham surrounded by a sea of trees.

Barrier loves discussing her work. Dressed in slacks and a tie-neck denim blouse, she is a dynamic, engaged speaker, sometimes asking questions of her interviewer or moving around the room to illustrate a point. Her descriptions of her duties often flow from administrative jargon to moving accounts of courthouse drama.

As trial court administrator, Barrier handles tasks such as coordinating civil hearings and scheduling juror summonses. But the full scope of her duties extends far beyond that.

In May 2020, Barrier also became the courthouse’s COVID-19 coordinator. Since then, she has worked with other top-tier court officials to establish the numerous shifting health precautions the courts have adopted over the past 20 months. 

Barrier is one of the courthouse’s two disability access coordinators, providing equipment like hearing aids and crutches to those who need them for court. And judging from the many visitors, phone calls and emails she received on a recent Tuesday morning, many court employees consider her their go-to problem-solver.

One of Barrier’s first challenges that day came from a person wanting to bring a service animal to court. In her 17 years working there, Barrier had never received such a request. But she knew who could help.  

She sent a quick email to, and left a voice message for, the disability access coordinator at the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees judicial functions for North Carolina.  Then she waited.

‘Oil upon those troubled waters’

Barrier recalled one occasion where she spotted a man arguing with an arbitrator after he’d missed his hearing. She told the man that the case was out of the arbitrator’s hands, but that she could reschedule it for him.

He turned his frustration on Barrier. He ranted for the entire trip to the ninth floor, and when they left the elevator, he was still too distraught to be reasoned with.

“He’s bent down like this,” Barrier said, crouching and staring at the floor with tense hands framing either side of her head. “He’s just, ‘This is not right, this is not fair.’”

Not wanting to tower over him, Barrier said she crouched to his level. She asked if he had a certain document, and he handed it to her. She copied it for him and rescheduled his case. Then she gave him her phone number and email address. That way, he could double-check the time before coming to court.

“He said, ‘You know what, I want to apologize for my behavior earlier,’” Barrier said. “’You know, you just come to the courthouse and people tell you things, and this case is for a lot of money.’”

Barrier sympathized. “I’ve been to places and people just tell you, ‘no,’” she said. “And then you find out, it’s not true.”

Barrier said she focuses on finding ways to get people a “yes.” And her coworkers bear witness to those efforts. The first time Clerk of Court Archie Smith — the courthouse’s chief administrator — met Barrier, she was dealing with a particularly disagreeable woman whose case was being transferred to Superior Court.

“She spread oil upon those troubled waters,” Smith recalled. “The next thing you know, they’re walking off together like best chums.”

Trial Court Coordinator Suzanne Hansen, who works under Barrier, marvels that her boss “never forgets a face or a name.”

Employees and laypeople alike frequently find themselves in Barrier’s wing of the courthouse, lost. Everyone in the wing is happy to give directions, Hansen said. But, she said, Barrier likes to accompany a person to make sure they get to the right place.

A ‘muddled’ work-life balance

During a recent interview, Barrier handled various mini crises typical of a Tuesday morning in the courthouse.

She got a response on her service animal question within half an hour: They are allowed in courtrooms, but a judge can order them removed if they interrupt proceedings.  

Barrier’s next challenge came from two out-of-county court interpreters who said other courthouses usually provide badges to ease their comings and goings. The Durham County court interpreter, Maria Owens, appeared sheepish as she approached Barrier.

Barrier immediately opened a cabinet and pulled out an ID card labeled “court reporter.”

“Can you send an email to me and we can work on getting interpreter badges?” she told Owens after handing her the badge.

Barrier remains in her office until 7 p.m. most evenings, Hansen said. And when she goes home, Barrier said she often takes calls at night and on the weekends.

Asked about work-life balance, Barrier said, “I don’t think I really have one. I think it’s all just muddled together.”

This devotion has limited her personal life. Barrier said she’s too busy to take care of so much as a “hermit crab,” even if she kept it in her office.

“It would surely die,” she said.

The note wall

 But Barrier doesn’t regret the time she devotes to her career. Instead, she sees her “work family” as essential to her life.

A portion of a wall in Barrier’s office testifies to her impact on this “family.” Countless cards, notes and letters clutter the space, many attesting to Barrier’s kindness and service.

“Dear Deneen, Maria and Patty,” Barrier’s former boss, Kathy Stuart, wrote in a handwritten note to Barrier and two others. “Thank you for traveling 350+ miles to Richmond last month so that you could surround me with love on a tough evening.” 

“Thank you again for your usual, wonderfully professional courtesies extended to me during my recent stop at your courthouse,” wrote attorney John Bussian in a typed letter. “Arranging hearing time within 24 hours and a way to obtain a copy of the file within minutes are truly remarkable feats of public service. No wonder I feel, in all the other courts in which I appear across the country, none approach the Durham County Superior Court!”

Barrier pointed out that she spends more time with her coworkers than she would with a spouse and children at home. She fought to contain her emotion while looking at the notes.

“Sometimes, when it’s tough and you need a bit of support, it’s good for me to go to that wall,” she said, blinking back tears.

 

PHOTO ABOVE: Deneen Barrier sits at her desk at the Durham County Courthouse. Photo by Josie Vonk, the 9th Street Journal.

 

 

Support beyond the court: A local non-profit’s work with homicide victims’ families

The murder victim’s mother rushes out of the bond hearing in tears. Marion Bailey hurries out after her. 

Bailey, a 74-year-old retiree wearing a bright purple sweatshirt and matching pants, convinces the distraught mom to sit on a bench outside courtroom 7D one recent morning at the Durham County Courthouse. Bailey holds the crying mother in her arms.

The mother has just heard Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. set bond for the man charged with murdering her son. The chief Superior Court judge ruled that the defendant had to pay  $150,000 to gain his freedom — frighteningly low, in the mother’s opinion.

Waiting in the hallway with a family friend is the deceased victim’s 8-year-old daughter. The girl watches her grandmother’s weeping, confused. 

“Grandmama just heard something that made her sad,” Bailey says to the little girl. “She’ll be all right in a minute.”

Bailey scoops up the child. Still sitting on the bench, she wraps one arm around the girl, the other around the murder victim’s mother. 

A Cold, Complex Process

Last year, 37 people were killed in Durham. Each homicide leaves behind grieving families. While the court system pursues justice, the care and support of these families is often left behind. 

Into that gap step people like Bailey, who works with the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.  Its volunteers use grief groups, vigils, and the simple power of their presence to guide relatives of homicide victims through what can sometimes be a cold and complex court process. 

After the violent death of her sister Elizabeth Watson, the first thing Teresa McCall wanted was justice: “You want to know how justice is going to work. You want to know how quickly this guy’s going to be arrested, how quickly the trial can occur, how things are going to happen so that at least you can get some closure to the process.”

Three years after her sister’s murder in July 2018, they finally have a trial date for November. McCall is “sitting on pins and needles,” hoping it will proceed as planned. 

There are currently 65 pending homicide cases in Durham County and 94 total defendants, says Sarah Willets, spokesperson for the Durham District Attorney’s Office. 

Homicides can take years to resolve. The mountain of evidence must be processed by a state crime lab, and the severity of the crime means numerous pre-trial motions. Prosecutors are sometimes reassigned and defendants change attorneys, causing further delays. Some cases remain open from 2015. 

Once the process begins, families realize the court system is not focused on their loss. At a quarterly administrative meeting designed to get all pending homicide cases before a judge, “Each case might only be discussed for a couple of minutes,” Willets says.  “The defendant may or may not be there. The family’s loved one’s name might never be said.”

The lack of attention to victims devastates families. “I just want someone to care and acknowledge who my sister was,” says McCall, whose sister was 59 when she was killed. 

Unlike defendants, who have an attorney to advocate for them, victims have no representation. Prosecutors represent the state, leaving victims’ families without a role and often without a voice. 

Victims’ families are guaranteed only one chance to speak in court — at sentencing. The D.A.’s office has tried to address this by holding quarterly sessions to meet with families and discuss the court process, but Willets recognizes it falls short.

“There’s still not room to support people in the way that they need and deserve. Because at the end of the day, our staff also has a job to do in which they have to remain objective,” Willets says. “There is still a need for something outside of the court process.” 

That’s why the Coalition assists, and advocates for, victims’ families.  

“When you cannot pick up the phone and call [your loved one], it is a deafening sound in your mind,” McCall says. “And then to further feel like it’s just a process what happened to them. It’s not okay. And the Coalition ensures that we know that it’s not just a process. They ensure that we know that this person that got taken through anger, through whatever reason, that they mattered.” 

Constant Contact 

The Coalition was founded in 1992 by civil rights activist Leslie Dunbar and Reverend Mel Williams in the wake of rising gun violence in Durham. A non-profit, it supports the formerly incarcerated as they re-enter society and facilitates restorative justice, an alternative to the traditional court process.  It also supports families of homicide victims through its vigil ministry. 

The vigil ministry helps families navigate a confusing and emotionally taxing legal system. Coalition members give families rides to the courthouse, attend meetings with them, accompany them to hearings, and help them to fill out paperwork and prepare for trial.

Bailey and three vigil team members also keep track of all the homicide cases traveling through the Durham County Courthouse. They take turns spending Monday, Tuesday, and sometimes Wednesday there, trying to keep up with the ever-mutating court calendar.  They do this mostly to keep families informed. 

“It’s probably a total of maybe 30 people that you gotta stay in constant contact with,” Bailey says. The team frequently informs families of developments in their case before the court does. 

But the vigil ministry’s work goes beyond the courtroom. 

When a homicide is committed in Durham, the team immediately uses its community networks to offer support to the family. After several months, they may organize a vigil for the lost loved one. Vigils provide a space for family and friends to gather, mourn, and celebrate the victim’s life. 

The Coalition also hosts grief support circles on the third Thursday of every month. Homicide victims’ families come and share how they are doing, discuss their challenges with the court system, and find comfort in a community of people who understand their unique loss. 

Not all families accept support right away. 

Michelle Hall, whose 34-year-old son, Tavares Hall, was murdered by a stray bullet in October 2018, was not ready when the Coalition first reached out. “But they are patient, and they’re very kind,” Hall says. “[Bailey] stayed in contact with me. And finally, I was able to join one of the [grief support] meetings, and it made such a difference.” 

The group’s power lies in the shared experience. “It’s a very lonely place to be when you don’t have people who can share in your pain,” McCall says. “It’s very, very lonely until you talk to someone who truly understands.” 

For Hall, a Durham County Library employee of 22 years, the grief circles are bittersweet because, despite the pain that brought them together, the group has formed a strong community of love and mutual support. 

“I never wanted to be a member of it,” says Hall, 56, now a Coalition board member. “But I’m a member for life.”

Marion’s ministry

Bailey’s 20-year-old grandson Javaun Graves was shot and killed in 2015. Graves was one of her nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Bailey was a volunteer with the Coalition prior, but after what she calls Graves’s “senseless murder,” she felt compelled to work with victims’ families. 

“I chose to dedicate myself to do anything I can to correct the system so my grandchildren have a chance at life,” Bailey says. “The ones that are still here.”

Bailey, who wears short gray curls and glasses, has a warm, comforting voice. But her dedication is fierce. Formerly an office assistant at North Carolina Central University, she has spent her retirement working tirelessly in the Durham community. The Coalition is just one of her many ministries. 

“When [people] say ‘I don’t know where I would be without the Coalition’…I think they are really talking about Marion,” says board member Susan Dunlap, who helps Bailey facilitate the grief groups.

Bailey is known for going the extra mile (literally) for homicide victims’ families. Once, “one of my guys was really upset,” and she drove all the way to Cary to comfort him. She takes phone calls in the middle of the night. She meets with school counselors to explain why a victim’s child may be struggling. She and the team deliver food to families in need. 

Bailey, who says she has no time for a significant other, remains in contact with all the families, even after their court case is resolved. McCall says, “Marion texts me all the time.” 

But she is most loyal to the mailman. She has already sent out 15 encouragement cards in October and is preparing her November batch. She sends cards to families around the anniversary of their loved one’s death, to honor missed birthdays, or to uplift anyone who needs extra care. 

The support goes both ways. After her three surgeries this year, “My families rallied around me. I got calls, I got cards, I got food, I got flowers.” Bailey says. “They stepped out of their own grief and their own worrying to sacrifice, to be sure I was OK.” 

“Marion gives us opportunites to take a breath,” McCall says. “She makes us feel like we belong to life.” 

PHOTO ABOVE: Teresa McCall, left, and Marion Bailey stand together at the 29th annual Vigil Against Violence, organized by the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. The Coalition supports families of homicide victims, and Bailey is one of its staffers. McCall’s sister was killed in July 2018.

Ardor in the court: a judge and his toys

If someone asked you to picture a judge’s chambers, you might imagine a room from a “Law & Order” episode, with quilted leather furniture, towering wooden bookcases, and draping maroon curtains. You may see an American flag or thick stacks of tattered law books or portraits of old people in scalloped gold picture frames. 

You probably wouldn’t picture an extensive toy car collection, a secret candy drawer, or a framed 18×24-inch poster of “The Three Stooges.” But then again, you’ve probably never visited the chambers of the Honorable Archie L. Smith III. Because the first time you walk into the office of this judge and clerk of Superior Court, who has over 45 years of law experience (and white hair to prove it), you might wonder whether he shares the space with a third grader. 

On Smith’s wooden desk, a thick stack of papers covered in red annotations is situated right next to a tray full of colorful action figures, among them Snoopy and Smurfette. His deck of business cards, each featuring the great seal of the state of North Carolina, rests beside a tasteful assortment of food-shaped erasers. The wooden plaque with a golden gavel recognizing Smith’s service as president of the state conference of superior court clerks is barely even visible behind his arrangement of magic crystal balls.

And yet, there’s no third grader in sight. Just a gleeful 71-year-old Durhamite who wouldn’t dare take himself too seriously. The way he sees it, if he can refer to his desk as “the command post of the Starship Archie,” why wouldn’t he?

Once you climb aboard the ship, the first thing you’ll notice is Smith’s impressive wall of credentials. A 4×5 grid of various-sized, slightly crooked picture frames, showing off Smith’s degrees, certificates, and awards. It’s not an ego wall, though. It’s a wall of mileposts. 

“It gives me continuity with where I am now and how I’ve come along,” he says. 

Then, thinking that sounds too serious, he grins and adds, “And what else are you going to do with framed things?”

Below the frames, behind the command post, is another desk which holds Smith’s black Lenovo laptop, open but idle. It’s used for “this and that,” mostly communication. But when it comes to questions of the law, Smith much prefers to walk to the glass cabinet a few steps away and pull out one of 30-plus dark green law books, each dedicated to a different general statute of North Carolina. The books are exhaustive, but in his experience, Smith has found they don’t quite cover it all. So, he’s found alternative methods. 

For example:

If you came into Smith’s office to discuss a complicated motor vehicle collision, he may ask you to “hold on a sec” while he pulls two toy cars out of a drawer. “Let’s reconstruct the wreck,” he’ll say.

Archie Smith’s office has the requisite wall of framed credentials. But it also has plenty of knickknacks and tchotchkes. Photo by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

If you begin to cry at Smith’s desk while explaining the details of your case, he’ll most likely reach into his secret candy drawer and hand you a Lindor Truffle. “A little chocolate will make you feel better,” he’ll say.

If you find yourself angry in Smith’s office while talking about how somebody wronged you, he’ll grab a gag voodoo doll from another drawer (How many drawers does this guy have, anyway?) and offer you the opportunity to curse your enemy with “flatulence” or “bad breath.”

If you ask him what’s gonna happen with your case, and he’s not quite sure, he’ll grab a translucent crystal ball out of its ornate golden stand on his desk. He’ll hold it in both hands and gaze deeply into it for a while before looking up at you and saying: “I can’t tell you right now how your case is gonna turn out. I would if I could. Been trying to find one of these that works, but none of ‘em do. If I find one, I’ll call you right away.” Twelve crystal balls later, he’s still searching.

And if you were to ask Smith why he does these things, these totally unnecessary but completely charming things, he’ll tell you that he simply can’t help himself. He loves whimsy. 

“You know, some of the things in this office have nothing to do with anything,” he’ll tell you, as though you didn’t already know that. 

He might be referring to the 6-foot tall bonsai tree standing by the window that was given to him 30 years ago when it was just “an itty-bitty desk thing.” Or maybe he’s talking about the literal pile of rocks that sit in a bowl on a shelf.

“They’re little curiosities. I mean, I bet you don’t have one of these,” he says, grabbing a wind-up toy scorpion and letting it inch across the table. “I mean come on. That’s fun.” 

This is the way Smith explains most things in the Starship Archie. 

“Can’t throw that away,” he’ll say.

Or “That tickles the hell out of me.”

Or “Where’re you gonna find another one of these?? You need one of these.”

There are some things so weird, though, even Smith doesn’t know what to make of them; mostly gifts from his granddaughters, or his friend Fred, who “always finds the darndest stuff.” But you can’t throw away a gift, Smith explains, and it would be ungracious not to display one.

Hence, his tchotchkes take up most of the space on his shelves and room in the seemingly infinite drawers of his desk. 

However, there is one surface in Smith’s office that’s empty: a long wooden table just beyond the command post.

If you ask Smith why that is, he’ll tell you that this is where the serious business happens. Opposing lawyers argue over this table. Agreements are reached around it. Civilians’ fates are decided. 

“We can get down to the real juice here,” he says. 

But of course, the table is also used to celebrate staff birthdays, and, during the holidays, Smith uses it to display his “Carolina Christmas tree,” a little plastic evergreen with red tinsel. When there’s no seriousness to attend to, Smith wants this table to serve the same function as “the kitchen table in your mom and dad’s house.”

The same goes for his red leather couch, which he hopes will remind you of your living room sofa at home. And for his two granddaughters, it does. 

Whenever they come to visit, after tiring themselves out with their grandpa’s toys, they’ll inevitably pass out on this red couch. At which point Smith will go into his wardrobe, grab one of his two judge’s robes, and drape it over them as a blanket. The blanket-robe is easily differentiable from the robe-robe. It’s a significantly lighter shade of black, faded and frayed from years of naps. He doesn’t mind though. He only really needs one.

Smith knows that he’s got an unusual number of knickknacks for a county clerk, or anyone for that matter. But he also knows that a little joy can go a long way in a courthouse. And even with all his things, Smith can get down sometimes.

On these rare occasions, he’ll open a drawer at the bottom of his desk, and reach for a manila folder labeled, in his carefully penciled script handwriting, “Things Worth Thinking About.”

It’s filled with old newspaper and magazine clippings, notes from his granddaughters, and printed-out mantras. If you ask, he’ll take some of his favorites out and show them to you. But when you hand them back he’ll say “I’m not tryna be profound or anything” and divert your attention to the new model airplane Fred just bought him.

If you ever do have the pleasure of visiting the Starship Archie, on your way out, after Smith has offered you a parting mint, but before you’ve reached the doorway he might say, “I don’t wanna give the impression that I’m a lunatic, but I just like to enjoy life.” And you might think to yourself: boy, did “Law & Order” get it wrong.

Photo of Archie Smith in the Starship Archie by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal