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Posts tagged as “Sentencing”

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. 

Two DWI defendants walk into a courtroom: one leaves free, the other goes to prison

Two defendants pleaded guilty to DWI charges before Judge Amanda Maris. One walked out of the courtroom, and the other went to prison after Judge Maris denied his appeal for probation.

***

Judge Amanda Maris greets each defendant at the stand for Wednesday morning traffic court. She is generous with motions to delay hearings or requests to waive court and jail fees. She resolves cases quickly, often handling them within minutes of their introduction, and she expects attorneys to keep up the pace.

On Sept. 18, her packed morning takes two pauses — once to punish, and once to mourn.

Joshua Meckes shuffles to the podium as he prepares to plead guilty to Driving While Impaired. Judge Maris asks if he understands that by pleading, he is admitting guilt. He mutters, “Yes.”

A four-car crash. Open containers of alcohol and marijuana found in the car. Property damage totaling several thousand dollars. A Blood Alcohol Content level twice the legal limit. Meckes pleads guilty to the impaired driving that caused this collision. 

“You’re lucky no one was killed, sir,” Judge Maris says. “You’re responsible for affecting three other lives that night.”

Meckes’s attorney argues that the offense should be considered a Level 5 DWI conviction, the lowest sentencing level for that crime. He notes that Meckes cooperated with police, sought out treatment for substance abuse, and, aside from a speeding offense in 2011, had a mostly safe driving record.

Judge Maris chastises Meckes’s attorney for suggesting a Level 5 DWI conviction despite the presence of aggravating factors, such as the open containers and marijuana.

“The presence of open containers and marijuana in your vehicle is not a minor fact for this court,” she says. “It indicates a flagrant violation of the law.”

A circumstance as egregious as this, she says, shouldn’t be portrayed to the court as a minor offense, even if the defendant has taken steps to deal with substance abuse issues.

“Someone could have died that night,” she says. “We’re lucky they didn’t.”

As Meckes continues to look down at the ground, he lets his attorney field questions from Judge Maris, who will now decide his fate.

Judge Maris hands down a 120-day suspended sentence for Meckes, requiring 48 hours of community service, three months of weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and a monitoring device installed in his car. She adds on six months of supervised probation, despite the defendant’s request for unsupervised probation.

“It is not going to be unsupervised probation,” Judge Maris says. “This court does not have adequate assurance that Mr. Meckes is doing what he needs to, to provide for his own safety and that of Durham.”

“It’s just a lot of, a lot of stuff that I have to do,” Meckes says after his hearing. “It’s not worth making that mistake.”

***

About an hour later, Evan Hymes steps toward the podium, also ready to plead guilty to a DWI charge. He clearly says, “Yes, ma’am” when asked if he understands that he is admitting guilt.

Hymes, after a few too many drinks, drove his car into a ditch. His Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) reached 0.17, more than twice the legal limit.

He immediately admitted guilt, calling 911 himself to get towing assistance and cooperating with police officers once they arrived.

Hymes and his attorney make no excuses for his conduct that night, admitting that since he has two prior DWI convictions, this charge is a Level 1 DWI offense. 

While the Level 1 charge will require up to three years in jail, Hymes’ attorney is seeking probation under the condition that Hymes has already taken steps to support his sobriety.

“I appreciate, Mr. Hymes, that you’ve completed this inpatient treatment. I appreciate that you’re in AA,” Judge Maris says. “It’s the type of thing that I like to see when people are facing DWIs, and I’d like to see it sooner than now.”

As part of the plea hearing, Hymes makes a statement about his struggle with substance abuse. He says he hopes his recovery process may spur an individual in the audience to act on their own substance abuse issues.

“My name is Evan Drey Hymes, and I am an alcoholic,” he says. “As most, as some of you know, I was not always this way.”

Hymes describes himself as a devoted son, driven student, and dedicated Division I NCAA basketball player at Siena College. Basketball was his outlet, he says, for any of the obstacles he faced — an escape from the struggles he faced in his childhood.

“Here’s the kicker,” he says, “How does a young, black, successful student athlete, college graduate become dependent on alcohol?”

The courtroom is silent, lost in the tragedy that befell young Evan Hymes after he walked off the basketball court.

Hymes describes six or seven years of alcohol abuse, years in his life when he didn’t know where to turn in times of strife. He speaks about his inpatient treatment as an opportunity to connect with his faith as a basis for his newfound sobriety.

“I gave everything over to my higher power,” he says. “I asked him for forgiveness for everything that I’ve done in my past.”

His parents are in the audience. His mother muffles her sobs. Judge Maris turns away from Hymes to address his parents directly.

“I understand the pain you must feel right now,” she says, “to have your son up here facing the time that he is facing.” 

Judge Maris explains to the audience that an aggravated Level 1 is the most serious sentencing level for a DWI charge. People who are convicted on that charge, she says, routinely go to prison for a maximum of three years.

 “At a certain point there’s accountability,” she says, “and it’s now.” 

Evan Hymes will spend twelve months behind bars, the minimum for this conviction.

“It doesn’t give me pleasure to send people to jail — it doesn’t,” Judge Maris says. “But that’s what I have to do today.”

While Meckes trudges out of the courtroom at the end of his hearing, Hymes’s takes his place at the bench to Judge Maris’s right. He’ll sit on that bench until he can be transferred to prison to begin serving his 12-month sentence.

When the bailiff brings Hymes’s personal items to his parents in the audience, they ask if they can have one more chance to speak to their son. They are denied.

After a moment of looking at the parents, the bailiff goes back to Hymes and hands him a pad of Post-Its and a pen, a final opportunity to convey something to his parents.