The flashing lights of the police car caught me by surprise.
It was dark out, and my friend had asked if he could turn the music louder. I said yes – I, too, like my music loud. But as I continued down Chapel Hill Street, enjoying the rap music, I saw the lights flash in my rearview mirror.
“Am I being pulled over?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
For what? I wondered.
It seemed an odd time for me to get pulled over. For many weeks, I had been doing investigative reporting about a presentation on traffic stops given to the Duke football team by the sheriff’s office. The timing seemed ironic after I spent the last three months talking to players, legal experts, team representatives and the sheriff’s office, to piece together what happened at the meeting and to ponder what it meant about the fraught relationship between police and Black people.
Five Black players had told me they were bothered by the presentation because they felt the Durham Sheriff’s Office was justifying traffic stops of Black men. Law professors told me the sheriff’s office had used misleading statistics and told an incomplete story.
I, myself, had never been stopped – until this moment, which happened to be a week beforethe article came out. I am a white 20-year-old from Los Angeles. My friend in the front passenger’s seat is a 6-foot-1 Black man. “I’ve never been pulled over before,” I said to my friend as we waited for the police officer to walk up to the car.
“Really?” he asked. “Wow.” He had been stopped several times.
I asked him to tell me what to do, because he would know better than I did. I never got a lecture from my parents about being stopped by the police. My parents don’t have to worry about my life in a situation like this.
You might expect a cop to come to the driver’s side first. Instead he went to the passenger window, where the Black man was sitting. My friend rolled down the window.
Looking past him, the officer told me I was going 11 miles over the speed limit. I gave him my license and braced for a scolding when I added that it was a friend’s car and I wasn’t sure where the registration was. He said that was fine, and walked to his police car with my license.
I got a text message from the owner of the car, a friend from Duke, that her registration was in the glove compartment. I told my friend in the front seat to grab it for me, but he said it would look suspicious.
“Alright, then I’ll grab it,” I said, as if that were any better. He repeated himself. I stayed still.
I was texting my friends in a frenzy, but I was most worried about my mom’s reaction to whatever ticket I was about to get.
“My mom is going to slit my throat,” I said. I wanted to take that comment back the second it slipped out.
“I’m sure she’ll be happy you’re safe,” my friend said with a reassuring tone.
What he said next underlined the utter ridiculousness of my comment.
“I’m just trying not to get shot.”
He was right – I was not the one in danger. I started to say something else, but he stopped me because the officer was walking back towards us. I prepared for a citation, a ticket, a fine. I had my phone ready in case I needed to call the owner of the car.
Once again he came to the passenger window.
“Here’s your warning,” the cop said, and handed me a single piece of paper. “No charges. You’re just in our system.”
(“You really got off scot-free,” my friend would later tell me, noting that he got pulled over for speeding in January. He got a ticket.)
I took the paper. It was my friend, not me, who said, “Thank you, sir. Have a good day.”
I started the car and drove away.
At top, photo of Charlotte Kramon by Simran Prakash – The 9th Street Journal
City Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to approve pay raises for police officers and firefighters of every rank, in an effort to counter staff shortages in Durham’s police and fire departments.
The raises, which take effect immediately, are intended to bring Durham’s public safety salaries up to competitive levels, after years of falling behind. Police officers and firefighters will begin receiving increased pay as soon as their next paycheck, on Jan. 28.
“Durham will be where I believe it belongs, right at the top of the list of our peer cities in terms of compensating our first responders,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton.
Before the raises, pay for Durham’s police and firefighters trailed behind market levels. Market research conducted by the city in August across 13 municipalities in North Carolina and Virginia found that Durham Police Department salaries lagged behind that of other cities by 12.4%, while fire department salaries lagged by 10.4%.
Police recruits will receive a 10.6% raise, increasing their annual pay from $38,511 to $42,593. Firefighter recruits will receive a 14.3% raise, from $35,592 to $40,682 annually. Employees of higher ranks will receive proportionately equal increases in pay. The raises will cost the city a total of just over $4 million for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Instead, Durham community members voiced their support for the raises in the public chat alongside the meeting’s livestream. The commenters included numerous police officers and firefighters.
“Hoping to see the right thing done for Durham’s firefighters tonight,” wrote one firefighter ahead of the vote.
The new compensation plans were developed collaboratively by the Durham Human Resources Department and the city’s public safety staff.
Under the newly approved pay plan, Durham’s police and fire departments now offer the highest or second-highest salaries among a group of peer cities including Fayetteville, Greensboro, Raleigh and Winston-Salem. City officials said they hope the increase in pay will help attract and retain new recruits to fill vacancies in both departments.
Turnover rates among police recruits have increased from 43.3% to 55.6% over a 12-month period as of November 2021. To make up for the lack of personnel, Police Chief Patrice Andrews announced in December that high-ranking officers and detectives would temporarily join patrol units.
The pay raises also come during a spike in crime and gun violence in Durham. A recent rash of shootings has taken the lives of many community members, while the city recorded its highest number of homicides ever committed in one year in 2021.
Durham’s police and fire departments were overdue for a boost in salaries, based upon previously announced city goals.
A city pay plan adopted in 2017 calls for regular market adjustments to police and firefighters’ pay scales, along with merit raises for employees based on effective job performance. In recent years, however, both market adjustments and annual performance-based raises have been lacking.
In 2018 and 2019, pay rates for police and fire department staff went unchanged. In 2020, due to pandemic-related budget constraints, there was again no market adjustment, and employees also failed to receive annual merit raises. In 2021, the city once again did not offer annual performance-based raises.
The new compensation plans approved on Tuesday will help the city recover ground lost in the past two years.
“It’s not a final destination, but it’s an incredibly important step towards closing disparities in compensation for our workers here in Durham,” Middleton said.
Here’s what you need to know about the remaining three candidates: Bree Davis, Daryl Quick and Jahnmaud Lane.
Born in sunny South Florida, Bree Davis comes from a family of changemakers. Her father worked as a Baptist minister and coordinated outreach for Haitian and Cuban refugees.
“This is kind of my legacy,” she told the 9th Street Journal.
After moving to Durham 12 years ago, Davis experienced houselessness, food insecurity, and underemployment. As a single mom and bisexual Black woman, Davis says she knows what it feels like to fall through the cracks.
If elected, Davis promises to make sure that all Durham residents benefit from the city’s recent economic boom.
“The goal has been achieved, but now we have to pick up the folks that have been left behind,” she said.
Her other policy priorities include affordable housing and community safety. In her INDY Week candidate questionnaire, Davis wrote that she would fully fund the Durham Police Department while exploring alternatives to policing through Durham’s new Community Safety Department.
Davis currently works as a research coordinator for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She started her own social media consulting company, Social Media Phobia Solutions, in 2011. She’s also a collage artist and filmmaker.
Daryl Quick is pledging to “make a better Durham by getting back to the basics.”
Throughout the campaign, Quick has talked openly about his experiences growing up in public housing with family members who struggled with drug addiction.
A native Durhamite, Quick hopes to inspire children experiencing poverty to dream of running for public office.
His platform addresses violent crime, social services, and infrastructure.
Quick promotes his campaign heavily on his Facebook page. In a Sept. 8 post, he wrote, “No more status quo! No more gentrification! No more low wage paying jobs! No more kids can’t play! No more walking past a homeless person downtown!”
Jahnmaud Lane isn’t just a rare Durham Republican: He’s a highly followed conservative commentator.
His Facebook page, “Mind of Jamal,” has over 300,000 followers. The clips regularly stretch over an hour.
In his videos, the adamant Trump supporter pours over a range of far-right topics. He recently criticized coronavirus vaccines and workers’ unions, decried calls for national political unity, and urged his followers to “break out the Old Dixie” because “this union stuff aint working.” Lane often speaks in front of a Confederate flag.
He streams videos on YouTube, too, but the apparently associated “MindofJamal” Twitter account has been suspended.
The article noted that he was charged in 2001 with a misdemeanor for resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. Two years later, he spent over a year in a state corrections facility for assaulting and seriously injuring another person, the article added.
In the News & Observer piece, Lane also acknowledged that he attended the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, though he said he didn’t enter the Capitol building.
On Lane’s campaign website, his platform focuses on addressing a rise in violent crime. He would like to pay police officers more. His other policy ideas include building more affordable housing and more intensely inspecting public housing facilities for tenant damage.
The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
At top: Bree Davis is one of seven candidates running to be Durham’s next mayor. Photo provided by Bree Davis.
When Chris Kenan pulled up to his childhood home in East Durham last month, he saw seven mothers standing resolutely with a crowd of children.
At the Rochelle Manor Apartments to help run an event bringing police and residents together, Kenan quickly realized that something was very wrong.
Police had confronted three kids playing tag with guns drawn earlier that afternoon while searching for an armed suspect. The oldest, aged 15, was handcuffed. The mothers were furious at what they saw as the latest example of unjustified harsh treatment by police.
“The mom said, ‘The police just came over here and threw my child on the ground and pointed guns at the kids’,” Kenan recounted. “I was blown away by what had just taken place.” Mayor Steve Schewel, at Rochelle Manor to attend Kenan’s event, quickly arranged a meeting between the families and Police Chief Cerelyn Davis. “I thank God that we came right after it happened because we had the mayor there,” Kenan said. “It was able to escalate pretty fast without a lot of blowing up.”
Helping families in communities like Rochelle Manor feel heard and supported by police and city leaders is why Kenan helped create BLAST, or Building Leaders for a Solid Tomorrow. The 32-year-old father of three, a physical education teacher and football coach at Neal Magnet Middle School, in 2015 began giving away toys and bikes at Christmas to kids at Rochelle, where he lived as a kid.
After George Floyd died in May when a Minneapolis police officer refused to stop pushing his knee into his neck, Kenan organized a rally for athletes to protest racial injustice outside the Durham County Courthouse in June. Some of Kenan’s former students, Duke University football coach David Cutcliffe, and members of the Duke football and men’s basketball teams attended.
After that, Kenan and three friends decided to put a name to their efforts and launched BLAST, which now includes a team of around 30 volunteers — students, lawyers, doctors, athletes, and other professionals included.
At a time when activist groups and city council members are pushing to reduce the role of police in key discussions about the future of public safety, BLAST is working to strengthen relationships between children, parents, and the police working in their neighborhoods.
Chief Davis praised Kenan for creating “an avenue for positive community engagement between the police and the community” in a statement emailed to The 9th Street Journal.
The chief was intrigued by Kenan’s passion, said police spokesperson Jacquelynn Werner. “Using the trust they built, and trusting us, we’ve been able to allow our officers to go to the events and start new dialogue, as well as continue some existing conversations,” she said.
Persistent lobbying helped grow BLAST from a project by four friends into a group with significant buy in from decision makers. “We send texts out to every judge, every lawyer, every city council member, the chief, the sheriff, the mayor,” inviting them to events, Kenan said.
Some view efforts to better unite residents and police as urgent in Durham. Gun violence is on the rise. As of Sept. 19, there were 689 shootings in the city this year. That’s up from a total of 495 shootings to that date last year.
And after a summer of protests, this is a time when relationships are frayed between officers and Durham residents most vulnerable to that violence.
Since July, BLAST has put on nine “Safe Zone Friday” events at Rochelle Manor and at four Durham Housing Authority complexes. Kenan and his co-founders hand out groceries and school supplies and go door-to-door to sign students up for free tutoring. Over a dozen police officers typically attend, allowing kids to enjoy a few hours outdoors without the risk of hearing gunfire, Kenan said.
“My biggest concern is simple,” he said. “Can the kids come outside and play?”
After police body camera footage emerged in July of an incident in 2019 where a Durham police officer was accused of assaulting a high school student, and recent protests over the treatment of the Rochelle Manor youngsters, BLAST’s mission has deepened. Now improving relationships between police and residents, especially youth, has become more urgent for Kenan.
“People think that these matters are just national matters,” Kenan said. “I’m glad that we were able to have a real incident in this city that we can shine a light on but that nobody was hurt from physically. But we still have some healing to do.”
Kenan’s personal history motivates him to help the community heal. Like Zakarryya Cornelius and Jaylin Harris, two of three kids at the center of the drawn-gun incident, Kenan grew up at Rochelle Manor, experiencing the social and financial challenges that many children living in subsidized housing still face.
“My mom raised us in a tough environment, and she did a great job – I could never thank her enough,” said Kenan. He was the only one to graduate high school and college out of 10 childhood friends, he said.
“Everyone else I grew up with is either dead or in prison,” he explained.
At each Safe Zone Friday event, BLAST leaders invite adults and kids to speak out about their needs and any long-standing issues in their neighborhood at Safe Zone Fridays, gun violence and conflicts with police included. That allows Mayor Schewel or other decision makers who attend to hear directly from the community.
A rainy day gave way to sunshine and a cool breeze by the time two dozen officers congregated last Friday at a grassy corner at the Hoover Road complex shortly after 5 pm. As children lined up for ice cream, Kenan and volunteers laid out food trays donated by Home Plate Restaurant, owned by long-time supporter Brian Bibins, whose son was coached by Kenan.
Loud speakers blasted a song that put perceptions about policing center stage. It started with the sound of blaring police sirens. Then a male voice, raw and staccato, rapped about George Floyd’s death and the “shooting, shooting, shooting” of Black people by police.
The officers, a mix of city police and county sheriff’s deputies, didn’t flinch. They talked and bumped elbows with kids and their parents. One deputy threw a football across a muddy clearing to a boy.
After passing out food and goodies to the kids, volunteers ushered residents and officers into a large circle around a grassy clearing. Devonte Smith, a BLAST co-founder, stepped forward and offered help.
“If you need to find a job, maybe we know somebody,” Smith said. “If you need better relations with the police, you come talk to us.”
But mostly, he said, he wanted those present — including City Council members DeDreana Freeman and Pierce Freelon — to hear residents say what they and their children needed.
“Education!” one woman offered. “Computers, basketballs, you know, simple stuff — a jump rope!” added another.
Residents called for better parks and community centers too. Several parents said they wanted safe outdoor activities for their kids. Kenan said BLAST plans to respond to that need with “Training in the Trenches,” an after-school program BLAST will kick off in October. Police officers and former student-athletes, including some of Kenan’s former students, will teach kids sports ranging from football to golf.
Officers did not speak during the circle at Friday’s event. But after the event, Sgt. Daryl Macaluso of the Durham Police Department said that community policing, where officers are assigned to neighborhoods where they get to know residents, is essential. Macaluso is with the department’s Community Engagement Unit, which focuses on crime prevention in Durham’s public housing communities. The department doesn’t have enough officers to ensure that those who respond to a call know the people in neighborhoods where they are dispatched, he said.
“I don’t think that would have happened if the officers knew the kids,” he said of the Rochelle Manor incident.
As the Safe Zone event finished, Hoover Road resident Dontray Cole, 45, was laughing and filming as BLAST volunteer Omar Humes, 50, played a spirited game of basketball with one boy.
“Almost, man! Get it!” Cole chided as the neighbor’s son ran across the packed dirt, dribbling past Humes to try to make a basket into an old hoop shorn of netting.
Cole’s expression became more pained as he described how he views the way police usually interact with Hoover Road residents. He praised a white officer who he said comes and speaks with the kids every morning. But some officers were “rude” and “hostile” to residents they perceived as dressing or appearing similar to gang members, he said.
“It gets to your heart,” Cole said. “Don’t treat us like zoo animals.”
Cole said that gunfire in and near the complex, which he attributes to gang members who don’t live in Hoover Road, is a problem. “The kids are way too young, the shooting gets to their mind,” he said.
Events like Safe Zone could help with both gun violence and residents’ relationships with the police, Cole said.“That’s what we need — show their support. Come check on how everything’s doing,” Cole said, as about half a dozen kids started heading toward their homes as night fell. 9th Street reporter Charlie Zong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
At top: Sgt. Daryl Macaluso, who work with police department’s Community Engagement Unit, throws a football to a kid at the Hoover Road community. Photo by Henry Haggart
New demands that Durham Police Department improve how it treats residents swelled last week after news broke that police officers approached Black children with guns drawn at an apartment complex. Three days after dozens of community members, many parents and children, gathered in front of Durham City Hall in protest, event organizers continued to demand action today. They want police to release body camera footage of the encounter, which involved kids aged 8, 11 and 15. They also want a recording of the phone call that summoned police to Rochelle Manor Apartments on Aug. 21. “Most importantly, commit to reforming community policing efforts to ensure the officers are not only members of our community but be regular participants of engagement, committed to strengthening the relationships between officers and civilians,” organizers wrote Monday on a Facebook post.
Sarah Hinton and others organized Friday’s protest after seeing a WRAL report about parents’ anger at the incident, which resulted in police temporarily detaining the oldest kid in the group, 15-year-old Jaylin Harris, in handcuffs. Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis on Sunday said the officers were responding to a call about a “suspicious person with a weapon” at Rochelle Manor in East Durham. The caller claimed that the person in question had “a gun and drugs” and suspected that he had been involved in a prior shooting, her written statement said.
The families of the children met with members of the Police Department, including Davis, last week. But on Friday they said they were not satisfied with the outcome.
“The solution that we wanted, we didn’t get,” said Makeba Hoffler, the mother of Zakarryya Cornelius, the youngest of three boys who family members said were playing tag when police arrived. His birthday was the day ofter the encounter. “We didn’t get an apology,” Hoffler said, adding after the meeting she was not convinced that officers cared for the children.
Davis wrote that she had expressed “sincere remorse” to the families in her statement. “We recognize that the current climate of adverse encounters by police in communities of color around the nation continue to resonate,” she said.
City Council members Charlie Reece and Mark-Anthony Middleton attended Friday’s protest and encouraged participants to keep demanding change by contacting city officials and pursuing other avenues.
“Stay in our faces, stay in our inboxes” said Middleton, who assured participants that the city, as Davis said in her statement, will thoroughly investigate the incident. If officers violated any rules, they will be held accountable, Middleton said. “If badges need to be snatched, they’ll be snatched,” he promised.
Before the crowd dispersed, 15-year-old Jaylin Harris, and 9-year-old Zakarryya Cornelius spoke and expressed gratitude for the people who gathered on their behalf. The incident with the police “made me feel like I won’t be able to come outside,” Cornelius said. “Thank you for coming to stand here and listen to us.”
Organizers said they plan to reconvene on Friday, for a second protest at city hall to be followed by a march to the Durham Police Department headquarters.
9th Street photographer Henry Haggart can be reached at email@example.com
Top photo: After Friday’s protest finished, a child studied a sign protesters brought to Durham City Hall. Photo by Henry Haggart
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.
“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 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.”