Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts tagged as “Durham Police Department”

Pavement protest murals: Will they stay or will they go?

Chances are you’ve spotted them on social media streams: super-sized words painted on pavement outside two government buildings in downtown Durham.

“DEFUND” yells one in large yellow letters in front of the police department headquarters. “FUND” demands the other, outside the Durham County Human Services Complex a block away.

People pushing for massive change in local policing created them in protest last month, days after the City Council approved the city’s $502.6 million 2020-2021 budget. Tucked inside was $70.3 million for the police department, a 5% spending increase from last year’s budget.

What’s not known is how long the street murals will remain. City officials with the Cultural and Public Art Program and the transportation department remain undecided about keeping the pavement art, city spokesperson Amy Blalock told 9th Street Journal.

Talking back

On June 19, scores of people answered a call from local activists to join a “community art action” and rally coinciding with Juneteenth. That’s the holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, when the last group of enslaved people in the Confederate states learned the Civil War was over and they were free.

The action occurred during week three of national demonstrations against racism and police violence after George Floyd’s death on a Minneapolis street. An officer, since charged with murder, kept pressing a knee into Floyd’s neck after the handcuffed man repeatedly said he could not breathe.

Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition of activist groups planned the pavement-art protest. The group was formed in 2016 to oppose the construction of the new Durham Police Department Headquarters, which cost $71 million.

“Juneteenth means abolition,” organizers wrote on the Durham Beyond Policing page on Facebook, referencing police abolition, a movement seeking to replace police and prisons with other approaches to community safety.

The coalition had organized a mass email campaign urging City Council members to redirect police funding to education, health care, and alternative community safety programs. After all City Council members voted to pass the city’s proposed 2020-2021 budget at their June 15 meeting, supporters of the coalition were disappointed. 

The lettering of the protest mural isn’t easy to read up close. This portion was painted outside police headquarters on East Main Street, near shelters protesters set up. Photo by Henry Haggart

“The unanimous vote really hit our collective and community very hard,” said Kyla Hartsfield, an organizer with Durham Beyond Policing. “We tried through comments, emails – and here’s another way to push the message of defunding the police,” she said.

During the event, participants went to work with paint rollers, spelling out big yellow letters and an arrow pointing at the police headquarters on East Main Street.

As police officers and volunteers diverted traffic, protesters marched one block down the street to paint again, this time with an arrow pointing to a building hosting county services such as public health, social services, and veteran services.

A local, national trend

The Durham street murals are part of a growing number of anti-racist street murals sprouting up in cities across the nation.

In past weeks, local governments and businesses have signaled support for police reform by commissioning painting of the “BLACK LIVES MATTER” slogan. The artworks can stretch across multiple city blocks.

Not everyone pushing for changes to community safety likes the trend of murals paid for by elected leaders. Some activists say city officials painting streets distracts from protesters’ demands for systemic change.

“Cities are co-opting language we’re using but not actually making change or making Black folks safer,” said Hartsfield, from Durham Beyond Policing. 

The Durham street art was created by protesters who did not seek the city’s approval to make it. It highlights a central question: whether communities should fund police and prison reforms or give more money to programs that help people rather than punish them.

Organizers have circulated a striking top-down view of the two murals, produced by a camera mounted to a participant’s drone. Though the words are difficult to make out at street level, the paint remains bright and visible from above.

Marcella Camara, a Durham-based artist who helped organizers plan the pavement art, said using artistic expression as an anti-racist protest was keeping with the spirit of Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth is a day of mourning, but it’s also a celebratory day for Black people to get together,” she said, noting that the rally also featured music, free food, and dancing.

Camara said she saw the art project as an opportunity for community members to come out and learn about the concept of police abolition and Durham Beyond Policing’s proposals.

“This may be their first time engaging with the sociopolitical issues of our time,” she said. “Art makes that more accessible.”

9th Street Journal reporter Charlie Zong can be reached at charlie.zong@duke.edu

At top: While hard to read from the street, the meaning of the protest street art is crystal clear from above. Photo used with permission

‘Tenacious and compassionate’: How Bishop attorney Allyn Sharp defends her clients – and wins

At a hearing in September 2019, Allyn Sharp took down Tony Huelsman with ease. 

Huelsman, the lead investigator in the case against Alexander Bishop, a Durham teenager accused of killing his father, Bill Bishop, couldn’t help but stutter when Sharp grilled him about his search warrants. Prosecutors had suggested Alexander plotted to kill his wealthy father, a real estate developer with a $5.5 million estate to which Alexander was one of two heirs, after Alexander said he found him in a chair with a dog leash wrapped around his neck. 

His face often flushed red, matching his American flag tie. Sharp, with a smile and piercing blue eyes, just kept grilling him, breaking Huelsman down bit by bit. 

Huelsman had sworn in search warrants based on a purchase order that he believed $462,773 of gold bars were missing from Bill’s safe, suggesting Alexander may have had a financial motive for killing his father. But the gold was never actually missing. The purchase order shows Bill had sold the gold, not purchased it, in August 2016. 

Sharp didn’t let Huelsman’s sloppy investigating go unpunished in cross-examination at the Sept. 16 hearing

“It’s your testimony that you didn’t remember noticing the date?” Sharp asked. 

“That’s correct,” Huelsman said. 

“And that you didn’t find the date relevant at the time?” Sharp asked. 

“I did not,” Huelsman said. 

Sharp’s interrogation worked. Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. tossed swaths of evidence, ruling Huelsman was either “untruthful or showed a reckless disregard for the truth” in his search warrants. 

That’s just how the case against Alexander fell apart. Allyn Sharp broke it down. Prosecutors acknowledged as much when they dropped murder charges against Alexander earlier this month, citing insufficient evidence. 

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry, Huelsman, and another prosecutor had been facing the prospect of a hearing when Sharp charged them with failing to share evidence in the case. Sharp accused Deberry of destroying evidence and Huelsman and/or Deberry of “deliberately withholding evidence which they know undermines” the case against Alexander.

She also accused prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas of failing to alert the court that Huelsman allegedly perjured himself. 

Three days before prosecutors dropped the charges, Sharp had demanded a hearing on the contempt charges in a Feb. 3 letter after filing the motion in December. 

Sharp wasn’t eager to take credit for her victory, though. 

“All I did was my job, which was to protect a young innocent man from being wrongly convicted, which was made easy here by the fact the State’s case was based on falsities,” Sharp told the 9th Street Journal. 

Through the District Attorney’s office spokesperson Sarah Willets, Deberry and prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas declined to elaborate on why the charges were dropped, saying the office doesn’t comment on specific cases after they are dismissed.

Sharp’s nontraditional path to law 

Sharp didn’t exactly take a traditional path to becoming a criminal defense attorney. 

She received her undergraduate degree from the University of California San Diego in 1998 but didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. So she went to South Africa, moved in with a Zulu family, and volunteered at a hospice facility for patients with AIDS. 

“I wasn’t saving lives there, but I was helping people die peacefully, which was more rewarding than I could have ever imagined,” she wrote on her website. “It was through that experience that I realized I wanted to work in a helping profession.”

She wound up in law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in 2011 and became a public defender in Greensboro, where she worked for two years. 

Wayne Baucino, who has been a public defender for more than two decades, immediately spotted her talent in Greensboro. She noticed the little details other attorneys might miss and was dedicated to her clients, Baucino told The 9th Street Journal.  

Just six months after becoming an attorney, she delivered the closing argument in a capital murder case. Her client won. 

Her experience in South Africa may have made her the attorney she is today.  

“If I could use two words to describe her it would be tenacious and compassionate,” Baucino said. “I’ve probably learned more from her about really caring about my clients than I had learned in all my previous years in practice.”

After two years in Greensboro, she became a public defender for felony cases in Durham for three-and-a-half years. She didn’t lose any trials as a public defender from 2011 to 2017 before moving into private practice. 

‘She will find things that I suspect other lawyers don’t find’

Sharp’s compassion for clients can be seen in her tenacity. Baucino described how she dives into a case headfirst and looks at every detail with a fine-toothed comb. 

“She will find things that I suspect other lawyers don’t find,” Baucino said. 

That’s what happened when Sharp defended Alexander, who had been charged in February 2019 with killing his father.

But Sharp was quick to point out what she — and eventually Judge Orlando F. Hudson — saw as misconduct from Huelsman in investigating the case. 

Two months after Alexander was charged, Sharp filed a meticulous 20-page motion to suppress swaths of key evidence. Huelsman made false or misleading statements to get search warrants and failed to show probable cause, Sharp argued in the April 2019 motion. 

One example of alleged misconduct was Huelsman’s claim in a search warrant that Alexander made “suspicious” online searches in light of his father’s death. Those included searches for the “price of gold per ounce,” “how to transfer bank accounts after death,” and “how to calculate the value of an estate. 

Not a great look for the defendant, right?

But Sharp pointed out a crucial detail Huelsman deleted in subsequent warrants. Those searches came after Bill’s death, not before as Huelsman had implied. 

“This investigation has been nothing more than a fishing expedition based on Investigator Huelsman’s unsupported suspicions,” Sharp wrote. 

Huelsman had claimed Alexander wanted to speak to the EMS supervisor after his father’s death “alone and away from the police” and that Alexander told the supervisor that he “wasn’t going to be upset about his father dying.” That wasn’t what body cameras said. 

Alexander Bishop only said that he wanted to speak with the EMS supervisor “in private” — not away from law enforcement — and that he “feels bad that he doesn’t necessarily want [his father] to live,” according to Hudson. 

Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, questioned Huelsman for hours over two days of hearings. Photo by Ben Leonard | The 9th Street Journal

Huelsman did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. 

Sharp pointed out all of these things in the motion and in cross-examination, an area where she shines, according to Baucino. 

Her argument landed in court, with Hudson throwing out most of the evidence against Alexander, pending an appeal. 

In October, Hudson tossed evidence regarding the “suspicious” searches and the “missing” gold that wasn’t actually missing. Based on Sharps’ motion, the Superior Court Judge tossed Alexander’s supposedly contradictory statements about where he found Bill, along with what Alexander told first responders about how he felt about his father’s death. 

By February, prosecutors dropped murder charges against Alexander due to lack of evidence in a stunning admission of their shaky case. Without the tossed evidence, it seems the case was no longer viable. 

Sharp told the 9th Street Journal that she can’t take credit for the dismissal. 

“This case is and has always been about evidence which was falsified by the lead investigator, who was the only witness to testify before a grand jury in an unrecorded proceeding which led the grand jury to return an indictment,” Sharp said. “Alexander is innocent and should never have been charged or prosecuted.”

In photo at top, Sharp sits with Alexander Bishop at a September hearing on the case. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

The life cycle of a sexual assault evidence kit

It starts when the emergency room door opens.

A victim walks in. She may have been sexually assaulted an hour ago or a day ago, but now, she’s decided to see a doctor. She might walk in with a friend or a parent, or she might sit alone and wait for the sexual assault nurse examiner to arrive.

“I just introduce myself at the beginning,” says Molly Chadbourne, a former sexual assault nurse examiner in Durham who currently trains other nurses. “I explain who I am and why I’m there to talk with them. Then, I ask them what they want. Do they want a kit?”

This is where a sexual assault kit begins. Its life cycle may last months, or even years.

The nurse ushers the victim into a small hospital room where they have privacy. Chadbourne likes to start with the easier questions: “What’s your medical history? What types of medicine do you take?” Then, she’ll ask the harder question. “Can you tell me what happened to you?”

The nurse listens, letting the victim take breaks and reminding her that it’s okay to tell her story imperfectly.

“We know that some people aren’t going to remember everything right away, and they might not remember it linearly,” Chadbourne says. “We have to give people permission to start talking about whatever they can, even if it’s not at the beginning.”

Then, the nurse starts to assemble the kit, a small white cardboard box with “Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit” printed on the front. 

The nurse starts collecting “known” samples, or the victim’s DNA. She’ll gently swab around the victim’s cheeks, gums, and lips. She’ll ask the victim to take off her underwear and seal it in a bag labeled “Underpants”. She’ll pluck exactly 50 hairs out of the victim’s head and then comb through her pubic hair, securing any hairs that fall off into a small envelope. 

Then the nurse collects “unknown” samples, which could include the assailant’s DNA. The nurse will swab any place on the body where the victim says she was assaulted. “It’s anywhere that was licked, bit, or touched by the assailant,” Chadbourne says.

She says “anything that’s on their body might be relevant”. Victims and nurses alike understand that the victim’s body is a crime scene.

The nurse takes photos of the woman, documenting any cuts, scrapes, or bruises. “I offer to let people look at the pictures,” Chadbourne says. “I try to give them as much control over the process as possible.” At any point, she notes, a victim can stop the kit collection.

After two hours, the nurse has packed away dozens of cotton swabs, photographs of injuries, and envelopes of hair into the sexual assault kit. She closes the lid of the white cardboard box and places it in storage, where the kit waits for law enforcement to come pick it up the next morning.

***

When the kit arrives at the police department, an officer will take a first look. That officer might notice if the kit is connected to a consent case, a case in which the victim and the perpetrator both agree that they had sex, but disagree on whether it was consensual. Three years ago, a consent kit would get put back on the evidence shelves at the police department instead of getting tested. It could stay there for over 30 years.

“When I was seeing patients, I couldn’t say to them, ‘Your kit will never get tested, because you know the person that assaulted you,’” Chadbourne says. “Doing this really invasive process and knowing in the back of your mind that this kit will probably never be tested… it’s a really hard pill to swallow.”

But today, with the statewide push to send all kits to the State Crime Lab, that kit won’t sit on an evidence shelf if it doesn’t meet testing requirements. Instead, an officer will log it into the North Carolina State Crime Lab’s database. A technician at the lab will accept the kit, and the officer will drive it to Raleigh, where the State Crime Lab is located.

“We place the kit into a vault until it’s time to be worked,” says Jody West, forensic sciences manager at the State Crime Lab. “Then we open it up, and start with inventory.”

Every sexual assault kit is a little different “It’s a box, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all box,” according to Chadbourne and the State Crime Lab takes note of every swab, photo, and hair inside.

A lab technician first takes a tiny portion of the swab and uses a chemical to tease out the DNA from its cotton. “It’s like cracking open an egg and removing the yolk,” West explains.

Lab technicians then use a machine to separate the yolk — human DNA — from any other type of genetic material. In sexual assault cases, they’re usually looking for male DNA. “This is the decision point,” West says. “If we determine there’s not enough male DNA, we’ll stop.”

If the kit moves ahead, it goes through amplification, or copying the yolk. The assailant’s DNA fragments are heated and cycled through a hefty gray machine — in just thirty cycles, a billion copies of that DNA are made.

The last step is electrophoresis, or separating the yolk. Analysts use an electric field to detach different fragments of DNA. The result is a complete DNA profile. “It looks a lot like a heartbeat,” West says.

After hours in the emergency room, days with law enforcement and up to five weeks at the lab, this is what a completed sexual assault kit looks like: A series of peaks on a computer screen.

Those peaks the DNA profile of the assailant will be entered into a database of millions of offenders across the country. A computer will scan each offender’s profile, checking for a perfect match. If the all of the peaks line up, the computer spits out a name. Then, it’s up to the police to investigate the sexual assault.

That is the life cycle of one sexual assault kit. To clear the backlog of 15,160, North Carolina has thousands more to go.

“Most people, if they’ve ever heard of a rape kit before, it’s from watching Law and Order SVU,” Chadbourne says. “They think it gets solved in 60 minutes. The truth is, it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.”

A sexual assault evidence kit. Photo provided by Molly Chadbourne

Resources for survivors:

Durham Crisis Response Center

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: What is a sexual assault forensic exam?

North Carolina Sexual Assault Kit Tracking 

North Carolina Office for Victims of Crime: Crime compensation

Police make three arrests after testing old sexual assault kits

In 2017, Michael Brooks Jr. was arrested for kidnapping, assaulting, and raping an elderly woman. Now, after testing evidence from a sexual assault kit that went untested for three years, police say they believe Brooks committed another rape a year earlier.

Brooks, 45, is one of three men Durham police suspect of committing multiple rapes after evidence in old sexual assault kits revealed DNA matches in separate crimes.

After discovering a backlog of over 1,700 untested sexual assault kits in 2018, the Durham Police Department has begun to pull those kits off the shelves and test their contents. Now, just over one year into the process, police have made their first three arrests connected to the testing of old kits.

***

In March 2018, the North Carolina State Crime Lab announced that law enforcement agencies had 15,160 untested sexual assault kits across the state. That discovery prompted movement in the capital and among individual law enforcement agencies. After decades of stasis, police and sheriffs’ offices began sending in their untested sexual assault kits.

So far, North Carolina law enforcement offices have submitted over 8,000 kits to the State Crime Lab for testing. Cities from Winston-Salem to Charlotte have reopened cold-case sexual assaults and charged suspects.

The Durham Police Department — the jurisdiction with the largest backlog in the state in 2018 — is joining those cities by charging three suspects identified through the testing of old kits.

Brooks was served an arrest warrant for a 2016 rape while in jail, where he waits to stand trial for rape and assault charges from 2017. Police also arrested Isiah Anthony Townes Jr., 22, and indicted Ronnie Porter, 45, for rapes committed in 2016 and 2014, respectively. 

“We’ve had some good success stories,” said Lieutenant Stephen Vaughan, assistant commander of the Criminal Investigations Division. “We’re looking at sending every kit we can.”

Vaughan estimates that the Durham police have sent in around 400 kits for testing so far. But the process is complicated by the different statuses of kits in the police inventory. 192 of Durham’s 1,711 kits are related to cases that have already been resolved in court, and 166 are marked as “unfounded.”

Kits marked as “unfounded” means that the officers who originally investigated the case believed that no crime occurred. But Vaughan and his team are still reviewing those cases to make sure the original designation was correct. “If there are any questions, we’re going to reopen that case and send the kit as well,” he said.

Police are even looking through cases that have already been resolved in court. In some cases, defendants who faced multiple charges accepted a plea deal that did not involve any sexual assault charges. Now, they could be held accountable for those crimes, too. 

***

Sending kits for testing at the State Crime Lab is just the beginning of the process for clearing the backlog at the Durham Police Department.

Take Brooks’ case. The State Crime Lab checked DNA evidence from the sexual assault kit with a federal database that contains DNA profiles from convicted offenders across the country. That’s when they found a match: the unknown DNA profile from the kit matched Brooks. 

After that, the Durham Police Department reopened the cold case and got to work. But they haven’t been working alone.

Durham’s Sexual Assault Response Team also includes the Durham Crisis Response Center, the District Attorney’s Special Victims Unit, and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program at Duke Hospital. 

“When the Police Department started getting to the point where information from the Crime Lab was coming back, they realized they needed to have a plan for how to contact the victims,” said Charlene Reiss, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Response Team at the Durham Crisis Response Center. Her team helps police form relationships with victims who may experience trauma from reliving a sexual assault.

“We sit in a room and go through these cases as a group,” Reiss explained. “We really try to figure out how to keep the victim’s needs at the forefront as the Police Department figures out how to move forward.”

***

The Police Department still has hundreds of kits to prepare for testing, including some that date back over thirty years. But the Sexual Assault Response Team is determined to clear the backlog.

“These are the cases that most need to be prosecuted,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, lead prosecutor in the Special Victims Unit. “We’re getting CODIS hits on serial rapists.”

Even so, she knows that the process is only just beginning. “I think the goal for this is roughly six years,” she said. “And that’s only to test them all. If the last cold case kit gets tested 5 years from now, it’ll be 7 years from now before it goes to trial.”

Brooks’ case will also likely take years to reach its conclusion. This week, the District Attorney’s office will meet with Brooks’ victims to attempt to work out a plea deal for both the 2016 and 2017 rape cases. Brooks is currently in jail on a $1,750,000 bond. His lawyer estimates that both cases will come to trial in the summer of 2020.

In Courtroom 7D: Tears, dramatic videos and questions about a homicide investigation

Correction: This story has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly said that Bishop said in his 911 call that he found his father on the floor.

This story was reported and written by Niharika Vattikonda and Erin Williams

Alexander Bishop wept as the video played on the big screen in Courtroom 7D. It showed police arriving at his Durham home and working feverishly to save the life of William Bishop, his father.

The dramatic video, recorded by body cameras worn by Durham police officers, was the focus of a hearing Wednesday morning. It showed William Bishop unconscious on the floor as police officers urgently gave him CPR.

As the video played in court, Alexander Bishop removed his glasses and buried his face in his hands, sobbing.

Allyn Sharp — an attorney for Bishop, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing his father — questioned officers about whether they had followed proper procedures. Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. held the hearing to consider Sharp’s motions that contend Bishop was the victim of shoddy police work.

One of the motions asked the court to sanction prosecutors for failing to provide Bishop’s attorneys with all the search warrants and evidence related to the case. Another asked that investigators return Bishop’s and his mother’s electronic devices that were seized during a search.

The other two motions sought to dismiss evidence found as a result of search warrants and statements Bishop made when he was first questioned. 

Alexander Bishop at a hearing on Sept. 11, 2019 | Photo by Cameron Beach, The 9th Street Journal

Those statements were the focus of much of the testimony Wednesday. Sharp questioned whether the statements Bishop made at the scene were lawfully obtained. But at the end of the day, Hudson denied her motion to suppress the evidence from that questioning. The hearing will continue Thursday on the other motions.

Wednesday’s testimony from police provided new details about the investigation and the early suspicions that officers had when they arrived at the Bishop home on April 18, 2018. 

When Officer Austin Farley asked Bishop about his relationship with his father, Bishop described him as emotionally abusive. “He went on to state that he wasn’t too concerned if his father didn’t come back,” Farley testified. “He also stated that he would be afraid of what his father did if he did survive.” 

Officer Samuel Kimball overheard Bishop’s remarks to first responders, and he testified that he was struck by the way Bishop talked about his father. 

“I noticed that he was consistently referring to his father in the past tense,” Kimball said. 

At that point, William Bishop still had a pulse and would not be pronounced dead until three days later in a hospital. 

“Usually grieving relatives or someone in this situation is still referring to their family member in the present tense,” said Kimball.

In her motion, Sharp argued that police officers unlawfully interrogated the teenager in the house without advising him of his Miranda rights. Officer Matthew Garvin testified that they were simply securing the scene. 

Sharp responded that for the purpose of Miranda rights, the only standard that applies is whether a reasonable person — in this case, a reasonable 16-year-old — would think that they were being held in custody. If that was the case for Bishop, then questioning him without an attorney or a parent present violated due process.

As a part of her cross-examination, Sharp played another clip from a body-cam video from one of the officers. “Keep an eye on the son. Make sure he doesn’t go anywhere,” Kimball says on the recording.

But the officers also testified that they were not ready to read him his Miranda rights.

“Did you at any point advise Alexander of his rights?” Sharp asked Officer Matthew Garvin, another police officer who responded to the call.

“I did not,” Garvin said. Two other officers on the stand also testified that Bishop was not read his Miranda rights.

However, Beth Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, argued that the “free to leave standard” — interpreted as whether the defendant thinks they’re in custody — does not apply under North Carolina law, which demands a “totality of the circumstances” analysis. 

She said Bishop was allowed freedom of movement, the officers themselves did not make explicit statements that he was in custody, and no restraint or intimidation was used to keep the defendant in the house. 

In his 911 call, Alexander Bishop said repeatedly that he thought his father was dead and suggested twice that the family’s dog may have strangled him by twisting a leash around his father’s neck. Police began to focus on Bishop as a suspect, and a grand jury indicted him in February. 

In July, Bishop’s attorneys filed motions to throw out most of the evidence, including statements made by the defendant. The motions also claimed that the lead homicide investigator omitted key facts to obtain search warrants.

At the hearing, officers testified about their growing suspicions while they were at the Bishop home.

After Kimball turned off his body cam, he met with other officers to discuss what they had found. He sent one of them to find Bishop, “just to monitor his movements out of caution,” Kimball said.

Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, asked Kimball what he thought at that point.

“I said that either it was a suicide or the kid did it.”