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Posts tagged as “Satana Deberry”

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s correct,” Huelsman said. 

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

“I did not,” Huelsman said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharp’s nontraditional path to law 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a great look for the defendant, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DA Deberry’s progressive agenda put on trial at town hall meeting

Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered last year in Burlington. The person charged with killing the 18-year-old and two others had multiple prior violent convictions, including homicide, but was released on probation.

“When he committed armed robbery, it was like this murder didn’t exist,” Jones told the 9th Street Journal. “He got a smack on the hand and probation.”

Now, Jones says he is fighting against policies that he considers to be too lenient on violent offenders. He’s particularly concerned about plea deals for people who have been previously convicted of a violent crime. 

District Attorney Satana Deberry’s annual report shows that she relied heavily on pleas for murder convictions — just three of 25 convictions were decided by a jury trial, doubling the previous year’s total number of plea convictions. 

Jones took the microphone at a town hall event Thursday to ask about her office’s role in keeping the community safe when releasing violent offenders. 

“How can that be of any good to the community?” Jones asked. “How do you all play a part in being responsible for turning that murderer loose back into the community?”

“This is not a science,” Deberry responded. “We cannot predict down the road what’s going to happen. I’m sorry about what happened with your grandson … What I can say is we don’t take any homicide plea lightly.” 

During the event held at St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church near North Carolina Central University and attended by hundreds, community members, like Jones, questioned Deberry’s progressive stance on prosecution. 

In her first year in office, Deberry has discouraged cash bail for lower-level crimes and welcomed less traditional methods such as restorative justice. But she has weathered her fair share of criticism. Half of her staff has changed since she took over in January 2019, with some quitting over disagreements about her approach. 

Deberry used Thursday’s town hall to tout her accomplishments from her first year in office, which include: 

  • Prioritizing more serious crimes

Deberry reported a 12 percent drop in the jail population since enacting a policy to no longer seek cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors and minor felonies. The goal: to not punish people who can’t afford to pay with jail time. 

“We don’t want to send people to prison. We don’t think that’s our job,” Deberry said. “We want to reserve the criminal justice system for those people who we don’t really have tools to deal with. Those are the people who commit the most serious crimes.” 

Instead of spending more time on lower-level offenses, Deberry said her office has prioritized more serious crimes. Her office got 25 homicide convictions in her first year in office, 10 more than the previous year. 

Deberry has prioritized cutting down Durham’s backlog of homicide cases. In one year, she has closed one-third of them.

  • Calling for cooperation to curb gun violence

Nearly 200 people were shot in Durham last year. At the recent town hall event, Deberry moderated a panel discussing how her office was responding to gun violence. 

Officials in Deberry’s office said they have focused on collaborating with law enforcement and prosecuting people who are involved in gangs or “in close proximity to violence.” But they can’t keep the community safer on their own, they said. 

Deberry urged witnesses to come forward to help combat gun violence, explaining that her office works to protect witnesses. 

“On television … you see people put a bullet into a machine and the machine spits out a mugshot. We don’t have that technology,” Deberry said. “The absolute best evidence in any case is you.” 

  • Implementing alternative practices 

Deberry has expanded the use of restorative justice, a practice that voluntarily brings the victim and the accused together to promote healing. 

Her office has also expanded referrals to a cognitive behavioral intervention program. This course, which helps people who may have committed crimes improve decision-making, used to be available only after conviction, but now people can be referred before trial. 

“Our goal is not just to punish crime, it is to reduce crime. We want people to not come back to the system,” Deberry said.

Deberry’s office also helped wipe $1.5 million in traffic debt that had barred thousands of people from reinstating their driver’s licenses.

At top: Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn speaks at a town hall event for the District Attorney’s office on Thursday, Jan. 30. Photo by Corey Pilson

CORRECTION: This story has been updated. An earlier version misstated where Allen Jones’ grandson was murdered. 

Bishop attorney accuses prosecutor of misconduct

A defense attorney has leveled a new allegation that prosecutors made serious missteps in the case against Alexander Bishop, a Durham teenager accused of killing his wealthy father, Bill Bishop. 

This time, Bishop’s attorney Allyn Sharp accused Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry of destroying evidence, making misrepresentations to the court, violating a discovery order, and intentionally withholding evidence that would damage the case against Alexander. 

Sharp filed a motion in December asking that Deberry, Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Hopkins Thomas, and lead police investigator Tony Huelsman be held in contempt for failing to comply with their discovery order. 

“The District Attorney’s repeated misrepresentations to this Court make clear that the District Attorney’s violations of her obligations and abuses of her authority have been willful and in bad faith,” Sharp wrote in the filing. Being held in contempt could mean up to six months in prison, censure, and fines up to $500, according to North Carolina law

Sharp prevailed the last time she filed a motion with accusations of misconduct. In October, Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. tossed swaths of key evidence after he found that Huelsman made false statements or ones in “reckless disregard of the truth,” and even accused him of “invent[ing] facts.”

Asked about Sharp’s new motion, Durham District Attorney spokesperson Sarah Willets said the office is “committed” to meeting its obligation to turn over evidence in the case and has “made no declaration that discovery in this case is complete,” she told the 9th Street Journal. 

Willets declined to comment further on the motion. No date for a hearing on the motion has been set, she said. 

Sharp: Prosecution ‘Deliberately withholding evidence’

Bill Bishop, a real estate developer, was found in his Hope Valley home with a dog leash wrapped around his neck in April 2018, his son claimed. Police quickly focused on Alexander, and the teenager was charged with killing Bill in February 2019. Alexander’s attorneys then filed a routine request for discovery, a process in which the defense receives evidence from the prosecution. 

But the teenager’s attorneys contend there were many things missing when they received the evidence. So in April 2019, the Superior Court directed Sharp to provide prosecutors with a list of the 33 “missing or incomplete” items, the filing says. But nearly a month later, Alexander’s attorneys said they had received none of the items. 

Among the missing evidence: footage from police body cameras. And when the defense received footage on May 9, 2019, they say they received 15 of the 19 recordings it had requested. 

Sharp asked for the missing videos. Instead, she got four copies of videos she had already received. It took another email to get the correct missing videos.

They ended up being important in the case. They showed a conversation between Alexander and a Durham firefighter that Hudson later ruled Huelsman had misrepresented in his search warrants. 

Sharp wrote in the new filing that “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.” 

Some of the missing evidence from discovery was correspondence between Bill’s ex-girlfriend, Julie Seel, and Huelsman. 

Another missing item: information from Bill’s laptop, which Sharp complained about in a May motion for discovery sanctions. 

Sharp also alleged that Deberry “destroyed” evidence in the discovery process by changing Huelsman’s titles of documents to new ones that were “often false or misleading.” 

Sharp accused Huelsman of perjury after testifying in September that he turned over a complete file when he had in fact not. Hopkins-Thomas, an assistant district attorney, knew he was not telling the truth and had an “ethical obligation” to tell the court and did not, Sharp argued. 

Hudson ordered Deberry to produce “complete discovery files” within two weeks in September. They have not yet been provided, Sharp wrote in the Dec. 17 motion. 

Other ‘misrepresentations’ and ‘abuses of authority’

Another complaint centers on the “missing gold” in the case. When Alexander was indicted for murder, a judge deemed him to be a flight risk and sealed the indictment based on Huelsman’s claims of missing gold from Bill that seemed to be a possible motive. But the gold was not, in fact, missing. 

Sharp also seemingly called into question the sincerity of Huelsman’s belief that Alexander was a flight risk. She said Huelsman waited several days to arrest Alexander after the court sealed the indictment and then arrested him on a Friday so he had to spend the weekend in jail before his first appearance. 

Sharp also accused Deberry of using her powers as prosecutor to shop for an inexperienced judge and waiting to tell Alexander’s defense team. She said Deberry failed to put Alexander’s first appearance on the calendar and then sent it to a “visiting, newly-elected judge.” A courthouse deputy had told Sharp that Hopkins-Thomas informed them to bring Alexander’s case to the courtroom where the new judge was, not to Hudson, a veteran judge.

In that courtroom, several media cameras were already put up, indicating that Deberry had told the media — and not Sharp — where Alexander’s court appearance would be. But Hudson switched courtrooms to take the hearing. 

Overall, Sharp argued Deberry did all of these things to slow down the case and damage Alexander’s defense. 

“The District Attorney has made material misrepresentations to this Court; filed frivolous motions; delayed service of filed noticed and motions and committed repeated frauds upon this Court by certifying otherwise; and abused her calendaring authority with regard to the scheduling of motions in this Court, all in her continuous efforts to delay this case and to prejudice Alexander’s defense.” 

(Photo at top of Allyn Sharp, Alexander Bishop’s attorney. Photo by Cameron Beach | The 9th Street Journal)