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Posts tagged as “Satana Deberry”

Prosecutor spotlights victims’ needs — in and out of court

Three years ago, Josh Sotomayor offered to mop the floors of the District Attorney’s office. 

He had entered law school four years earlier with hopes of being a defense attorney. He graduated and realized he could better transform the criminal justice system from within. 

Shortly after Sotomayor’s graduation, Durham D.A. Satana Deberry assumed office and ushered in her platform of reform. Half her office turned over, positions opened up, and Sotomayor applied. 

“I’ll mop the floor,” he recalls telling Michelle Cofield, deputy chief of staff, during his interview. “Just hire me.” 

In June 2019, Sotomayor was sworn in as a Durham Assistant District Attorney. 

Under Deberry’s leadership, Sotomayor, who handles domestic violence cases with the special victims team, is now part of the change he wanted to see in law school. But rethinking how to prosecute crime also means rethinking traditional approaches to caring for victims, inside and outside of the courtroom. 

“If someone feels heard, and feels actually heard instead of just lip service, it really goes a lot further than you would expect,” said Sotomayor, 30, who grew up in Charlotte. “They just want to feel that the [DA’s] response is tailored to what their needs are.” 

* * *

On a Wednesday afternoon in November between court sessions, a legal assistant knocks on the door of Sotomayor’s office. 

Sotomayor, the least experienced felony prosecutor in the D.A’s office, calls her in. The prosecutor sits behind his uncluttered desk in a white button-down shirt and a red, white, and blue striped tie. His dark hair is short, not quite a buzzcut, and he has a mustache, which sometimes looks out of place in contrast with his youth. 

A red Solo cup, a pink water bottle, and an empty Red Bull can all stand in front of him. A card on his desk reads, “Bless this mess.” 

Her voice hints at panic as she hands him a Post-It and asks if he’s familiar with a victim. Sotomayor repeats the name and his eyebrows furrow. In early September, the victim’s boyfriend had broken down her door and strangled her. 

The legal assistant frantically explains that the victim just called the front desk. The victim spoke so fast that the legal assistant didn’t catch the defendant’s name. 

“She said that he’s outside [her house],” the legal assistant says, out of breath. “We told her to hang up and call 911.” 

Sotomayor turns to his computer, furiously typing into a database in search of the case and the defendant’s name. His urgency is justified: women who have been strangled by an intimate partner are 750% more likely to be killed by the same person with a gun. Sotomayor’s controlled demeanor doesn’t break. 

Sotomayor calls up a corporal at the Durham Police Department’s Special Victims Unit and tells him what happened. 

“Can I send you the information and someone gets sent out over there?” he asks. He hangs up and says nonchalantly to the room, “Okay.” 

“Good to go?” the legal assistant asks. He nods and she exhales. The whole interaction is over in seven minutes. 

A large part of Sotomayor’s job is exchanging information and updates on “ongoing series of events that need attention” with groups like the Durham Police Department, Legal Aid, the Family Justice Center and the Durham Crisis Response Center. He not only builds cases; he also makes sure the victim is safe and supported. 

“Not every prosecutor is going to be available to you all the time,” said Jeff Whitson, a legal advocate for the Durham Crisis Response Center, who helps victims navigate the legal system. 

But Sotomayor makes himself available. Some days, the phone calls start before he even gets to the office at 8 a.m. and continue through the night. 

“The amount of information that is being generated is oftentimes a lot faster than anyone can keep up with,” he said. 

* * *

Sotomayor is, inadvertently, drawn to messes. He can’t explain it, except that he enjoys untangling intricacies and complex situations until justice finds its way out. Stalking and domestic violence cases are almost always messy. 

A stalker might use a number of different methods on multiple instances over time. Sotomayor connects each instance to form one larger case, increasing efficiency for the court system and reducing stress for the victim.  

An assistant district attorney’s interest and skill in finding the connections in these cases is rare, according to SVU team lead ADA Kendra Montgomery-Blinn. 

“We’ve started to consider [Sotomayor] a specialist,” Montgomery-Blinn wrote in an email. “Law enforcement seeks him out in advance to consult during their investigations.” 

Victims of domestic violence often hesitate to speak to the DA’s office, show up to court, or pursue a case. On average, victims of domestic violence will leave and return to an abusive relationship seven times before they make the decision to go for good. 

“We let people know that just because you’re not moving forward this time, we’re not going to judge you if you come back to us,” Sotomayor said. “The end goal is that when there is a problem and you are on that seventh time, you can trust us with what’s going on.” 

To build that trust requires effort. It means listening to victims’ traumatic experiences and connecting them with victim services. For those who want to pursue charges, Sotomayor guides them through a legal system that is not designed for victims. For those who don’t want to move forward, building trust means accepting that choice, even if, to him, it doesn’t seem like a safe move. 

“Sometimes it seems like a fool’s errand,” Sotomayor said. But other times, the patience and relationship-building pay off. 

In March 2021, a woman was adamant about not proceeding with a domestic violence case against her husband. She and Sotomayor talked for two hours before court one day, but she wouldn’t budge.

“I don’t get frustrated at this job often, but it would’ve been easier to talk to a wall about it. She wasn’t hearing it, which is fine, because I’m not telling people how to react,” he said. “But it was concerning.”

In the end, the case was dismissed at the victim’s wish. 

Several months ago, Sotomayor picked up a phone call and found her on the other end. She was calling to tell him that he was right. Her husband stopped abusing her for a month after the dismissal. Then he returned to his old ways. 

Now, with the help of the Family Justice Center and Legal Aid, she is filing for divorce and custody of their children. 

Whitson said victims whom Sotomayor worked with described him as very approachable. He pointed out that Sotomayor is always mindful of the kind of justice a victim seeks, including classes, conviction, plea or jail time for the defendant. 

“He actually listened to what they had to say,” Whitson said. “And for the most part, respected their wishes. I can’t remember a time when he completely went against a client’s wishes.” 

* * *

As Sotomayor describes getting lost in the D.A.’s office on his first day, his phone rings. It’s the corporal with an update. Durham police have arrived at the apartment complex of the woman who called earlier. 

“[The defendant’s] sister lives across the hallway,” he says after hanging up. He raises his eyebrows and pauses dramatically. “Allegedly.” 

Sotomayor finds out that there is an existing no-contact order against the defendant by the victim, but the victim’s apartment complex’s address isn’t listed on the order. It’s unclear, then, if the defendant is violating the order by visiting his sister.

* * *

When Sotomayor started at the DA’s office, he feared that he wouldn’t be able to hack it — the domestic violence caseload, the secondary trauma. 

“You’re dealing with someone’s worst day. Something tremendous has happened and tremendous in the worst possible sense,” he said. “How is that going to go?” 

But on a wall in his office, under a triptych of Washington Crossing the Delaware that he bought on Amazon, hangs a plaque — his Victim Services Award for Distinguished Prosecutor, which he received in April 2021 from the U.S. Attorney’s offices for the Eastern, Middle, and Western districts of North Carolina and the state’s Victims Services Interagency Council. Those who nominated him, according to a press release, noted his “victim-centered approach” and “genuine concern for the victim’s safety” in a domestic violence case. 

“These kinds of cases are emotionally wearing,” Montgomery-Blinn wrote. “But they are also the cases where a dedicated prosecutor, like Josh, can have the biggest impact.” 

Sotomayor no longer has the same concerns. Asked if the demands of the role can lead to burnout, his answer was simple. If you really care about the work — the cases and the people — you can do this job for a long time. 

PHOTO ABOVE: Durham prosecutor Josh Sotomayor received a Victim Services Award for Distinguished Prosecutor in 2021.

Reflections: The Podcast, Episode 2

 

In this latest Reflections podcast, Lilly Clark talks about how the news media’s coverage of the courts system sometimes does more harm than good. And she offers some thoughts on how reporters and editors can do better.  Listen on Apple or Spotify.

This podcast is part of a series that features 9th Street Journal reporters discussing lessons they’ve learned — about themselves and about journalism — as they’ve worked on articles for the site. The first podcast spotlighted Grace Abels.

Reflections is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

Reflections: The Podcast

In September, we introduced Reflections, a series of occasional pieces that feature 9th Street Journal reporters writing about lessons they’ve learned — about themselves and about journalism — as they’ve worked on articles for the site. Grace Abels and Lilly Clark wrote the first two stories.

Now comes the Reflections podcast, available on Spotify and Apple, in which our reporters further explore how they’re learning and growing. In this first episode, Grace continues to offer insights about how her interview with Satana Deberry, Durham’s District Attorney, propelled her to think in new ways about issues of identity, especially her own. In the coming weeks, Lilly will more deeply examine how journalists cover the courts – and whether they sometimes do more harm than good. And as other reporters write their Reflections, we’ll follow those up with podcasts from them too.

Reflections is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

PHOTO ABOVE: Grace Abels, by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

Reflections: My rainbow epiphany and Durham’s DA

Editor’s note: Reflections is a feature that encourages student journalists to explore how they have learned and grown from the stories they have written for The 9th Street Journal. It is funded by a grant from The Purpose Project.

June was my first Pride Month since I came out as queer. 

In the year after I shared my secret with my parents on a futon in a Columbus, Ohio Airbnb, I had tried my best to fully embrace my new identity. I’m talking a homemade flag, a rainbow Apple Watch band, and some funky laptop stickers (I’m really into the branding, I guess). 

While I had celebrated Pride Month before, somehow being “out” gave this June more meaning. I was feeling, well, proud. So while writing for The 9th Street Journal this summer, I went to my editor and proposed a Pride Month story.

My editor, Bill Adair, suggested profiling Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry, a black queer woman who was elected in 2018 on a platform of criminal justice reform. She was “out” as a queer woman, but in the many profiles written about her she had not publically discussed her sexuality in any detail. We decided to ask if she would do an interview. 

To our surprise, she agreed.

All of a sudden, we kicked into high gear. I had a story to write. The end of June was fast approaching, and we had to get it done not just for The 9th Street Journal, but also to meet a print deadline for our partner, Indy Week. 

As I began my research, I felt some anxiety. I know I may sound all gay and confident, but that’s not entirely true. 

I was beginning to feel a bit like a fraud. 

A bit of background about me: I’m bisexual. This is something I have known about myself for quite some time, but it is a truth I only began to publicly embrace about a year ago. 

To be clear, my delay in embracing my sexuality is no fault of my upbringing. I grew up in the accepting community of Durham, and my parents were Subaru-driving, NPR-listening, reusable-sandwich-bag liberals. Nor was it the fault of my peers. In fact, at the arts high school I attended, being queer might have earned me some social capital. So I knew that whenever I came out, I would be met with open and loving arms. 

But for years, I kept it to myself. It wasn’t because I wasn’t attracted to women around me, I just never got around to the critical part of actually dating one. (Upon reflection, maybe not telling anyone was part of the reason I could never get a date…) And to this day, I still have not been in a relationship with a woman. So for years, nagged by deep insecurity, I told myself that even though I knew I was bisexual, until I dated a women I didn’t really “count” as gay. 

I hadn’t suffered the weight of discrimination like many of my loved ones, and while I couldn’t choose who I was attracted to, I could choose who knew. Many people in my life happily assumed I was straight, and I just chose not to correct them. 

Because I hadn’t dated a woman yet, it felt wrong to say I belonged in the queer community. It felt wrong to take up space. I felt like I hadn’t earned it. 

In the past few years, through conversations with my queer friends, I have come to understand that this thinking was harmful and denied me part of my identity. There is no one way to be authentically queer, and while I can never claim to relate to the wide range of queer experiences, I have full right to claim my own story. 

So over the course of 2020, after my friends inspired my rainbow epiphany, I worked tirelessly to unravel much of this shameful thinking. I bought a pride flag on Amazon, claimed my queer identity, and — the big one — told my parents. I was certain I had overcome my previous backward thinking and was on the path to gay enlightenment.  

But as I began my research on Deberry, the doubt began to bubble back up. I was preparing to write a story about a queer woman who had faced true discrimination. Who in the world was I to act like I could relate? Did I even have the right to tell her or any other queer stories? Did I even count as a queer woman? 

Was I right before? Was I a big fat fraud?

My anxiety grew and by the morning of the interview, I was a wreck. Not only was I grappling with my own imposter syndrome, but I was also about to sit across from one of the most powerful people in Durham and ask probing personal questions. After unraveling all my worries to my mom across the breakfast table, she reminded me of something. 

“Grace, if you are this anxious about the interview, imagine how she feels? You are about to ask her a bunch of personal questions about her sexuality.” 

My mother had a point. (They often do.) But despite her reassurance, it was hard to believe that a woman like Deberry ever got nervous about anything

Still, that morning I went to the courthouse, rode the elevator up to the eighth floor, and did the interview. Deberry could no doubt tell I was nervous but treated me with kindness and patience. I shared a little about myself, but I mostly listened to her story. I returned to the office and spent the next two days writing the story that Indy Week would headline “Her Best Self – For Pride Month, Durham DA Deberry discusses life as a queer woman, justice for all, and her inspiration.”

People who read the story didn’t know it, but they were reading a story about me, too. 

I think, deep down, I originally wanted to write a Pride Month story to smother those deep feelings of inauthenticity. Perhaps, I thought, if I published a story in the paper for all the city to read, I could assert my queerness enough to “count.” If I openly celebrated the LGBTQ community, I could finally claim it as my community. 

But that’s not quite what happened. It wasn’t seeing my byline on the page that really helped me to grow. It was Deberry herself and learning about how she defines her own queerness. 

“For Deberry, her choice of the word queer reflects her belief that sexuality and identity are about more than who you love. ‘For me, queer is about culture, and about a worldview.’” 

This phrase has stuck with me. It reminds me that being queer colors the way I see the world, affects what I value, and defines how I love myself. Deberry’s words emboldened me to share myself honestly — enough even to write a whole story telling you about it. 

I have wholeheartedly embraced Deberry’s perspective, and I hope those who read my story did too. Because the truth remains: no matter who I will love, I will dance through life seeing the world through my rainbow-colored glasses. 

Photo above: Grace Abels by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

The 9th Street Journal, back in court

An ongoing reform agenda. A spike in violent crime, and its impact on Durham’s justice system. COVID-cordoned courtrooms.

Those are among the many issues our 9th Street Journal reporters plan to explore as we launch another special project focused on the Durham County courthouse.

Our first such project, in the fall of 2019, highlighted District Attorney Satana Deberry’s reform efforts. But she had been elected less than a year earlier. George Floyd’s death hadn’t kindled worldwide protests. And no one had heard of COVID-19. 

Now, we’ll ask: How is Deberry’s reform campaign unfolding? How has the larger debate about justice in America touched Durham’s judiciary? How has the pandemic affected the workings of the courthouse? 

That’s just the beginning. We’ll also write about important cases and hearings, and show candid, powerful moments that reveal the full spectrum of human drama to be found in courtrooms and corridors. The courthouse is aswirl with important, interesting stories that often go uncovered. We aim to share as many of them as we can.

Some of Duke’s best journalists will be on the case. They include student editors Michaela Towfighi and Chris Kuo and reporters Grace Abels, Lilly Clark, Daniel Egitto, Nicole Kagan, Mia Meier, and Milla Surjadi. 

My colleague Bill Adair started The 9th Street Journal in 2018 to give our journalism students a chance to cover local news in one of the country’s most socially and politically vibrant regions. Through this latest chapter of the Courthouse Project, we hope to hold government officials to their own high standards and deepen your understanding of how justice is done in Durham.

Photo at top: The 9th Street Journal’s Courthouse Project team: Standing (left to right): Milla Surjadi, Grace Abels, Nicole Kagan, Chris Kuo, Michaela Towfighi, Daniel Egitto, Lilly Clark, and Mia Meier. Seated: Stephen Buckley

 

 

 

For Pride Month, Deberry discusses life as a queer woman, justice for all and her inspiration

On the eighth floor of the Durham courthouse, a beige tower that is home to the county’s criminal justice system, you will find the office of District Attorney Satana Deberry. With colorful pillows and local art on every wall, her office seems out of place in the drab building. But Deberry, a black queer woman, hasn’t been a typical prosecutor. 

She oversees a system that often entangles people that look just like her. But she is the one running it – and trying to change it. 

Studies have found that LGBTQ people, like people of color, are disproportionately harmed by our justice system. Deberry, elected in 2018 on a mandate of criminal justice reform, has brought a unique understanding of the LGBTQ community to the DA’s office.

In an interview for Pride Month, she spoke with The 9th Street Journal about her life as a queer woman and her feelings about representation and justice.

We all have idols that shape us. In a framed photo tucked in the corner of her office, Deberry memorializes hers: Barbara Jordan.

Jordan, a “towering figure” in the 1970s, was one of the first black women to serve in the Texas State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. She, like Deberry, was unafraid to challenge the status quo.

During President Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearing, Jordan famously declared: “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder.”

While she never publicly revealed her sexuality, Jordan lived with a partner for 20 years until she died in 1996.

“I wanted to be Barbara Jordan,” said Deberry. “Barbara Jordan was the first black woman that I saw that I knew.” 

Building a Life

With Barbara Jordan in mind, young Deberry chased excellence in school. She decided good grades would be her path out of Hamlet, N.C. – a town of 6,000 between Charlotte and Fayetteville. It worked. Her determination and focus on academics carried her all the way to Princeton and through law school at Duke University. To this day, she still doesn’t “see light blue.”

She was always focused on her studies, so it wasn’t until her mid to late 20s, after graduating from law school, that Deberry began to understand her own sexuality. “It started to occur to me that I had to build a life. And how was I going to build that life?” 

She realized there was only one option. “It was never a case that I wasn’t going to be out. Because that’s just not who I am,” she said.

The core values of openness and transparency that she brings to her office stem from her own disposition. “I’m always trying to be my best self. And so, I don’t really think of being myself as being brave. I mean, that’s what we’re all doing.” 

When she came out, her parents were not surprised. “We already knew that,” they told her matter-of-factly, “so you should probably tell us something new.” 

Her parents were supportive, but for her mother, queer life was associated with tragedy. Deberry’s aunt, who today would likely identify as trans, lived a dangerous life and was ultimately killed. “I think for my parents, especially for my mother, that was the only kind of life you could have as a queer person . . . on the edges of society.”

Deberry worked for a few years as a criminal lawyer before taking jobs at various non-profit groups like Self-Help and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Then from 2013 to 2018, she served as the head of N.C. Housing Coalition – all while raising three daughters as a single mother. 

In 2018, she was elected the county’s chief prosecutor by promising bold reform. Rejecting the hard-line approach of many district attorneys, she vowed to put less emphasis on non-violent crime and said she would address racial bias in the system. 

Black women account for a tiny share of the nation’s DAs. In 2014, 79%  percent of elected prosecutors were white men, and only 1% were women of color. 

Talking to Deberry, who sports hoop earrings and blue Adidas tennis shoes, it becomes clear that she has not made it to the eighth floor in spite of her intersecting identities, but rather because of them. “Because I come at this from a cultural position of traditionally being powerless, I feel like I understand what’s at stake in a different way,” she said. 

DAs wield tremendous power in deciding which criminal cases get prosecuted. Unlike many prosecutors, her identity as a black, queer woman overlaps with many of those likely to be involved in our imbalanced criminal justice system. 

She says she brings her unique perspective to her work. “There are just experiences in my life, certainly as a queer person, that inform the decisions I make and the policies that we implement here.” 

‘The worst day of their lives’

During her time as DA, she has limited the use of cash bail, has scaled back prosecution of school-based offenses, and has focused on prosecuting violent crimes rather than low-level drug possession charges. She says these policies work to reduce the jail population and keep vulnerable people out of the criminal justice system. 

She also recognizes the way the system harms LGBTQ people. 

According to the most recent National Inmate Survey, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are three-times as likely to be incarcerated, and a third of all women in prison identify as queer. Studies show transgender people are more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. This rate is even higher for LGBTQ youth, who make up 20% of the juvenile justice system

LGBTQ people also are disproportionately victims of violent crime. The Williams Institute found they were four-times as likely to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault.

Deberry knows the statistics – and the challenges they reflect. “The dirty little secret of the criminal justice system is that not only are all the defendants poor black and brown people, but all the victims are as well,” she said. “So being poor, being black, being brown, being LGBTQ, all of those things put you in a situation in this country of just having access to fewer resources.”

To combat these disparities, her office uses a broader definition of domestic violence than the state government, to include same-sex dating couples. Her office also recognizes people by their chosen gender identity, a respect not common in the criminal justice system. And their special victims unit, which focuses on sexual assault, now handles cases in which someone is targeted due to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender presentation. “If that is part of the crime, we talk about it,” Deberry said. 

She wants to bring humanity to a system that can be insensitive and biased.

“The way that the system acts is to reduce people to the worst day of their lives” said Deberry, “and there’s so much focus on that particular act that we don’t spend a lot of time focused on the person.” 

If Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy

For Deberry, her choice of the word queer reflects her belief that sexuality and identity are about more than who you love. “For me, queer is about culture, and about a worldview.” 

As Deberry has gotten older (she is now 52), she has noticed that her queerness has ruffled fewer feathers. “It’s been interesting to me how little it comes up in this role,” she said. Most people just don’t know or don’t ask – she is not sure which. 

“I think that the real stick in the system is that I’m a black woman. I think that is what really pisses people off.”  

But to Deberry, her work is all part of a larger goal. “When you’re growing up in a black family, there’s a saying, ‘If Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.’ And really the truth of the world is that if, black women, black queer women, and black trans women are safe, then everybody is safe.”

She is working to create that world for her three daughters –  two are 16 and one is 19 – who predominantly communicate in TikToks and GIFs. They, too, have offered Deberry a window into the evolving queer community. 

“For my kids’ friends, they just try on a lot more things. They have friends who are pan, and friends who are trans, and friends who are nonbinary. They have friends who have already transitioned genders,” said Deberry “In that sense, I think those kids are brave.”

The life she has led was not one that many people could have envisioned when she was first coming out, she said.  But today, “you get to be anybody as a queer woman.”

This is what pride means for her:

“Representation matters. And, you know, you hear people say, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ I don’t necessarily believe that, but I do know that somewhere out there, seeing me is meaningful to somebody – just like seeing Barbara Jordan was meaningful to me. And so that’s really what pride means for me. That you get to see the full range of who you get to possibly be.”

At top, photo of Satana Deberry by Becca Schneid, The 9th Street Journal

Jail worker died of COVID-19, but Sheriff’s Office won’t discuss

Durham County detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr., 55, died last week and his death certificate is very clear about the cause of death: “COVID-19 / acute hypoxic respiratory failure.” 

But several days after his death, the Durham County Sheriff’s office won’t acknowledge why he died or give any details on where he worked or if he could have exposed inmates or other staff at the county jail. Spokesman David Bowser said the office can’t discuss the cause of death or details about Pettiway because it is a “personnel” issue and his privacy is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). 

Bowser could only offer assurances that no inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus. He did not say if there had been any changes in procedures following Pettiway’s death. The sheriff’s office and the death certificate conflict on the day of his death: the office says Saturday, and the certificate says Friday. 

Last week, the Sheriff’s Office had announced that six Durham County Detention Center staff tested positive for COVID-19, but also declined to say where they worked or how much the workers interacted with others. 

The office’s lack of details doesn’t sit well with Durham defense attorney Daniel Meier. 

“It’s a huge frustration there is not more transparency,” Meier told The 9th Street Journal. “I get the reluctance to name specific names, but it is important to know as much as we can.” 

Along with others, Meier has to go into the jail frequently to visit clients via video kiosks, so he said it would be helpful to know if he had come into contact with any staff that had tested positive. He said he also is frustrated that the sheriff’s office didn’t directly tell local attorneys that staff had tested positive for the highly infectious virus. 

Meier said he and other lawyers are criticized for filings asking for relief for clients due to the dangers of COVID-19 in jail, but there isn’t enough information to know that the jail is safe. 

“They say it’s not [dangerous], but won’t provide the information for us to know that,” Meier said. 

Meier noted that Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead did tell CBS17 last week that one of the six that tested positive worked with inmates and that “a majority of the six employees worked on the first floor of the detention center where intake and booking occurs.” 

But official statements from the communications office have lacked those details. The release about Pettiway’s death offered condolences and, without drawing a direct connection, pointed out the steps the sheriff implemented more than a month ago to slow the spread of the virus. 

The jail took steps to fight the spread of coronavirus on March 16, including banning all in-person and video visitation, using video kiosks for client meetings and having all first appearance hearings via video conference. The medical staff has been conducting COVID-19 screenings and making masks available to inmates. 

Amid coronavirus outbreaks plaguing jails and prisons nationwide, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry has worked to reduce the jail population. The jail is well below capacity with only 259 inmates out of a possible 736. Deberry also has worked to cut the state prison population by green-lighting modified sentences for some prisoners. 

“The Durham DA’s Office extends its deepest condolences for the loss of Senior Detention Officer Pettiway, a dedicated public servant. Our thoughts are with his family and the entire Durham County Sheriff’s Office,” Deberry told The 9th Street Journal via a spokesperson. “We will continue to review cases individually and make recommendations regarding release conditions based on public health and public safety.”

Bill Bishop’s former girlfriend asks for his homicide case to be reopened

Two months after prosecutors dropped charges in the death of Durham real estate developer Bill Bishop, his former girlfriend is asking authorities to give the case another look. 

Julie Seel says the Durham District Attorney’s Office was wrong to drop murder charges against Bill’s teenage son Alexander and has written a letter to a host of government officials, including Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, calling for a new homicide investigation. 

“Bill deserves better than the horrible injustice of his death, the poor investigation of his death, the poor defense of his death, the poor decisions in his case to throw out evidence, and the poor choice to dismiss charges,” Seel wrote in the letter, which she posted on a Facebook page she called “2 Year Anniversary: The Unresolved Homicide of William “Bill” Bishop.”

Alexander told first responders on April 18, 2018 that he found his father unconscious in an armchair, his dog’s leash wrapped around his neck, with the dog still attached. Bill died a few days later. 

Almost a year later, in February 2019, Alexander was charged with killing his father. By October 2019, the judge tossed much of the evidence against him due to sloppy police work, but the case was seemingly proceeding as normal as recently as February, when prosecutors suddenly dropped the charges, citing insufficient evidence. 

Seel called for the dismissed evidence to be returned, saying it was “arguably wrongfully dismissed,” and said it should be taken to a grand jury outside of Durham. 

“The City of Durham deserves better than the many horrible injustices of their justice system, which is well known and ignored by many of the elected officials and people who have sworn to serve and protect, and yet do nothing,” Seel’s letter reads. “Do something, Attorney General Josh Stein, namely your job.”

The Facebook page has a photo of  Martin Luther King Jr. with the quotation, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”) as well as links to news coverage of the case.

The Durham DA’s Office had appealed the tossing of evidence before it dropped the charges. 

In the letter, Seel also called for an investigation into why prosecutors dropped the charges. 

In December, Alexander’s attorney, Allyn Sharp, asked the judge to hold Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry, Huelsman and Assistant District Attorney Beth Hopkins Thomas in contempt for failing to turn over evidence. Sharp also asked for the case against Alexander to be dropped. The charges left all of them facing the prospect of up to six months in jail. 

In a Feb. 3 letter, Sharp noted no hearing on the motion was on the calendar, so Sharp accused Deberry of dawdling in scheduling a hearing in which she would need to defend herself.  Three days later, prosecutors dropped the charges. 

Could prosecutors have dropped the charges to avoid the hearing?

“The timing certainly raises questions,” Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry in 2018, told the 9th Street Journal in February. 

In February, Deberry and Hopkins Thomas declined to comment on the timing of dropping the charges. Sarah Willets, a spokesperson for their office, declined to explain why the charges were dropped beyond that there was insufficient evidence in February and declined to comment further on Friday. 

Protecting jail inmates from coronavirus

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced Mar. 16 that due to concerns about COVID-19, all in-person and video visitation to the Durham County Detention Center is suspended. Advocates from the ACLU, Duke Law, and the Safe and Human Jails Project, among others, are pushing for more changes to protect inmates’ health. 

Recent arrivals to the jail will undergo an additional screening for symptoms of COVID-19, and attorneys will only be able to communicate with clients through video kiosks. All first appearance hearings will be conducted by video conference.

These changes will affect all 369 inmates currently housed at the jail.

AnnMarie Breen, public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said the medical staff at the detention facility spoke to detainees about COVID-19, including how the virus is spread and proper hand washing techniques. Detainees are responsible for cleaning their cells, she said, and the jail has an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and other cleaning products. 

“We feel like we’re doing the most that we can to make sure that those CDC guidelines are being complied with,” Breen said.

District Attorney Satana Deberry released a statement Mar. 20 emphasizing that her office has taken steps to reduce the detained population. In February last year, the DA’s office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommends releasing non-violent offenders without monetary conditions.

“As a result of these policies and efforts by judicial officials, law enforcement officers and defense attorneys, the population of the Durham County Detention Facility is already well below capacity,” she wrote.

Last week, her staff began stepping up reviews of the jail population and working to safely release individuals, particularly those who do not pose a public safety risk, are over 60 years old, or have pre-existing health conditions that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Attorney Daniel Meier said attorneys are still allowed unlimited visitation with their clients in jail, and he’s able to meet with his clients 24/7. Instead of meeting in the attorney booths, where attorneys can slide paperwork to their clients, they are now communicating through secure video booths. 

The jail has 12 attorney booths but only two video booths. Now that video booths are in high demand for attorneys to meet with their clients, there can be delays, Meier said.  

Breen said that remote visitation might even be slightly more popular recently. Usually, she said, because of the costs involved with setting up remote visitation, there was a small fee associated with the service. Right now, the service is free, so many people are taking advantage of remote visitation.

In a letter to the Chairman and President of North Carolina’s Sheriff’s Association, advocates recommended that sheriff’s departments across the state implement additional precautions due to the anticipated spread of COVID-19. Advocates have suggested several strategies to reduce the county jail populations and maintain humane conditions of confinement.

To reduce county jail populations, the signatories of the letter have suggested releasing all individuals over 65 years old, those who have medical conditions that the CDC considers vulnerabilities in this outbreak, pregnant individuals, and others, unless there would be a serious safety risk to the community. They suggested stopping arrests for low-level offenses and issuing citations instead of arrests. 

Within the jails, signatories have suggested eliminating medical co-pays, ensuring adequate access to cleaning supplies, and avoiding the use of lockdowns or solitary confinement as a way to contain a potential COVID-19 outbreak. 

The signatories have emphasized maintaining confidential access to counsel, which Durham has implemented through the video kiosks available to attorneys and bonding agents, according to Sheriff Birkhead’s announcement.

“I’m not worried because, fortunately, we’ve got a very proactive defense bar. The DA’s office has stepped up and is working with us — so are the judges, the sheriff’s department,” Meier said. “I don’t know how other counties are doing it, but Durham is working together.”

Why did prosecutors drop murder charges against a Durham teenager?

In December, Alexander Bishop’s defense attorney Allyn Sharp made a highly unusual move: she asked the judge to hold prosecutors in contempt of the court, which could put them behind bars. 

Much of the evidence against Alexander, a Durham teenager charged with killing his wealthy father Bill Bishop, had been tossed in October after a judge said the lead investigator “invent[ed] facts.” 

After that, Sharp filed the December motion to hold the investigator, Tony Huelsman, and prosecutors in contempt for failing to turn over evidence. Sharp also asked that the case be dismissed. 

Until then, the case against Alexander seemed to be proceeding as expected, pending an appeal regarding the tossed evidence. Prosecutors had given no indication they were throwing in the towel on the case. 

By Feb. 3, no hearing on the contempt motion had been scheduled. In a letter to Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr., Sharp suggested that District Attorney Satana Deberry was dragging her feet in scheduling a hearing in which she would have to defend herself. If found guilty of contempt, Deberry, Huelsman, and Assistant District Attorney Beth Hopkins Thomas each could face up to six months in jail.  

Three days later, prosecutors dropped the charges against Alexander, citing insufficient evidence. They haven’t explained why. Could the charges have been dropped to avoid the hearing?

“The timing certainly raises questions,” said Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry for the district attorney seat in 2018. 

Deberry and Hopkins Thomas declined to comment when asked about the timing. Sarah Willets, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, also declined to expand on why the charges were dropped, saying the office doesn’t comment on cases after they are dismissed.

Unusual moves and delays seeing evidence

Motions to hold a prosecutor in contempt are “exceedingly rare,” according to Durham criminal defense attorney Alex Charns. Meier agreed.  

Usually, if prosecutors aren’t turning over evidence, a hearing will be held to discuss why the information isn’t being provided, Meier said. 

“If it’s legitimate, everyone moves on,” Meier said. “If there is no good reason, (the evidence) is ordered turned over.”

But in the Bishop case, the typical process seemed to fall apart. 

During the initial discovery phase, Sharp noticed many items that prosecutors were supposed to hand over were missing. At a homicide status conference in April, a judge told her to list all 33 of the missing items, which Sharp emailed to prosecutors, according to her contempt motion.

But nearly a month later, she hadn’t received any of the evidence, according to her motion. And when some of it arrived, it was incomplete. In mid-May, when she got police body camera footage, four of 19 body camera footage files she requested were missing. 

Sharp asked for the missing files. She got back duplicates of ones she had already received, not the missing ones. She asked again. Those missing videos turned out to be crucial to the case. 

Huelsman misrepresented what Alexander said to first responders in the videos in search warrants in three of the four missing videos, Judge Hudson found when he tossed swaths of evidence due to Huelsman’s misconduct. 

It is evident that the District Attorney and/or Investigator Huelsman are deliberately withholding evidence which they know undermines the State’s case, providing items only after they are specifically identified as missing by undersigned counsel, and even then refusing to provide items which clearly contradict Investigator Huelsman’s sworn statements,” Sharp wrote in the motion. 

In September, Hudson ordered prosecutors to turn over the complete file. 

That still hadn’t happened by December, Sharp claimed in the Dec. 17 motion. Some of the missing evidence included financial documents from Bill’s computer. 

After unsuccessfully trying to get a hearing date in January, Sharp wrote a letter to Judge Hudson on Feb. 3 asking him to schedule a hearing on the contempt motion. Three days later, prosecutors filed a motion to drop the charges against Alexander. 

Although Meier said the timing raises questions, Charns said he didn’t want to speculate on why the charges were dropped. 

What’s next?

Alexander was already free on a $250,000 unsecured bond before the charges were dropped. 

“Alexander is grateful to finally be able to move on with his life after the tragic loss of his father and an unwarranted criminal prosecution,” Sharp said in a statement.

Prosecutors had appealed Hudson’s move to toss evidence, but that appeal has become “moot” due to the dropped charges, Willets told the 9th Street Journal. 

But charges against him could be refiled later, Willets said, although she declined to comment when asked if prosecutors would continue to pursue charges against him.

Meier said, “The charges could be refiled pretty much whenever the prosecutor wanted to do so. However, it’s very rarely done unless there is some new evidence that comes to light.”