July 19, 2024

politics of law

Politics and Law

Is the Gavel Coming for this Durham Judge?

9 min read

One of Durham chief district court judge Pat Evans’s courtroom decisions was cast in the glare of a critical public spotlight last month when The News & Observer reported that Evans denied a Duke University student a no-contact order that would have given the student protection from a male student who she says initiated nonconsensual sexual contact and stalking.

The female student described two October encounters with the male student in his dorm room, including one when she spent the night there. She testified that the student repeatedly bit her breasts and penetrated her with his fingers without permission. The young woman submitted photos and in her testimony said they showed 10 to 20 bruises from the bites, the N&O reported.

Before issuing her ruling, Evans said it was a difficult case and that the “young lady is obviously in distress.”

But she added that she was “reminded of the reason for marriage and commitment,” according to a copy of the court transcript the INDY obtained.

“Now these are old-fashioned principles, but there is a rationale behind them because when we do things, because we have the opportunity or you have the free choice, you can choose what you’re going to do, but you cannot choose the consequences of those actions,” Evans said in court. “Therefore again, we have a young lady in obvious distress. We have a young man whose life could be changed forever as a result of my decision.”

The female student’s attorney, Kerry Sutton, told the N&O that it was “classic victim blaming.”

Sutton last week told the INDY that her client was “hurt.”

“What it tells me is that there is a whole class of litigants who shouldn’t be in front of that judge if she feels that strongly.”

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Evans was first elected as a district court judge in 2002. She’s facing a formidable challenge this election season from Kevin Jones, who has earned endorsements from the city’s two most influential political action committees, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the People’s Alliance, to preside over District 14’s Seat 3. Jones has also outraised Evans by $11,823 to Evans’s $1,500, as of December 31.

As the INDY researched this story, Bull City journalists, residents, and members of Durham’s judicial community unfailingly posed one question in their descriptions of Evans’s courtroom behavior:

“Have you talked with Muffin?”

“Muffin” is Andrèa Hudson, a longtime Bull City resident and executive director of the NC Community Bail Fund of Durham. She told the INDY this week she’s been waiting for someone to run against Evans since 2014.

“She’s a tyrant,” Hudson says of Evans’s courtroom behavior. “I haven’t seen any compassion in her sentencing, or how she talks to folk, even in juvenile court. She says she’s a devout Christian. But to me, when she looks at Black men or Black women, it’s like she’s disgusted and upset that they are there for any reason. She’s a Black woman and it’s like she’s offended that they are in court.”

Hudson says she was on probation in 2014 for a traffic violation when she served 30 days in jail after she was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury.

The day she got out of jail she had to return to court and stand before Pat Evans.

“My attorney told her I just did 30 days [in jail],” Hudson says. “Pat told me, ‘If you did 30 days, what’s 10 more,’ and sent me back to jail.”

Upset, Hudson says she started yelling that she had to pick her eight-year-old child up from school.

“Pat told the court clerk to call child protective services to pick him up,” Hudson says. “My daughter ran out of the courtroom to pick him up. My child stayed out of school the whole 10 days I was locked up because she was afraid child protective services would take him away.”

Hudson’s work with the community bail fund includes court watching. She says it was while working as a court watcher with the nonprofit Spirit House in 2014 through 2016 that she realized that what happened to her in Evans’s courtroom was not an isolated incident.

But Evans has her defenders.

They include young attorneys who are making a decisive footprint in the city, older legal colleagues, her fellow candidates campaigning together on the “Better Bull City” slate, along with Durham activists and residents who see her in the streets trying to stop gun violence. Evans, they say, is cut from the same fabric as longtime, no-nonsense Durham judge Carolyn Johnson, who in 1986 became the second Black woman elected to the bench, with the campaign slogan “Firm and Fair.”

Evans declined to comment for this story after receiving phone calls and an email from the INDY. A cursory look at Evans’s social media presence reveals a longtime, trusted public servant who has earned respect among residents in some of the city’s communities hardest hit by gun violence.

Evans is frequently lauded by Durham mayor Elaine O’Neal as a person making a difference in the streets during a period of near-unprecedented gun violence.

One of Evans’s colleagues and peers is Karen Shields, who started practicing law in Durham in 1974 and who served as a district court judge from 1975 until 1980. Evans was an assistant district attorney, while O’Neal was a young attorney.

Shields, who now works as a defense attorney, endorsed Evans and told the INDY this week that “Evans is a good judge.”

“I was a judge, and I don’t say this lightly,” Shields says. “I know Judge Evans and I have watched her over the years. I have been in her courtroom and have seen how she administers justice.”

Shields says when people are not satisfied with how justice is dispensed it leads to dissatisfaction and criticism of a judge’s decision. She adds that even among fellow judges there might be disagreement with how a case was handled, but it’s also important to consider a judge’s entire record and not “base it on one, two, or three cases.”

Shields questioned the agendas of the people and media outlets who are criticizing Evans’s administration of justice, and wondered why they aren’t “spending time keeping folks out of jail” or addressing “mass incarceration, not whether a person smiles or doesn’t smile.”

“The North Star is always fairness,” Shields says.

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“This is what it’s all about,” Evans said on April 9 while standing in front of a cache of long rifles and handguns that were turned in as part of the Bull City Strong Gun Buyback program she organized with Durham sheriff Clarence Birkhead.

“Stop the violence,” Evans said. “We have to take our streets back and make them safe.”

Former Durham police chief Steve Chalmers told the INDY that he’s not familiar with Evans’s work in the courtroom but lauded her work with justice and gang-involved youth since 2016 with several community groups. Those groups include Men of Vision; Women of Vision, of which she is a charter member; and New Durham Vision, through which she facilitates meetings between justice and gang-involved residents as a means of addressing violence and providing them with support.

“I know where her heart is, and her passion for this community,” Chalmers says.

But nearly a dozen of Evans’s critics, including activists and attorneys, told the INDY that while presiding from the bench she doesn’t respect young women attorneys or newcomers. She makes negative comments under her breath about the people appearing before her and berates prosecutors and defense attorneys. As the county’s chief district court judge, Evans supervises the county’s magistrates and is in charge of the district court judges’ schedules. She has been accused of scheduling judges based on favoritism.

“The judges she doesn’t like she schedules in places where they have no impact,” one young woman attorney told the INDY.

“She has a different demeanor out in public,” the attorney added. “To the voters she presents as a sweet old lady. But she’s hell on wheels.”

Another woman attorney told the INDY that Evans “criminalizes people’s feelings and places them in contempt” of court. “She locks people up longer because she doesn’t like their attitude. She has put lawyers in contempt too. She doesn’t discriminate.”

Most of the incumbent judge’s detractors—particularly attorneys—declined to make their names public because they did not want to cross any ethical boundaries but mostly feared having to go before Evans if she wins another term.

“If she wins, their clients will suffer,” Hudson says. “They know she will retaliate. They can’t say that, but believe me, I asked. They say, ‘If I say something and she wins, I won’t be able to win another case in her courtroom.’”

Shea Ramirez owns ShBella Dreamz, a recreational center along US 15-501 that focuses on personal empowerment, self-esteem, and confidence. Ramirez says Evans presided over a case in 2017 when her then 18-year-old daughter, who is gay, was served a no-contact order at the behest of the mother of a 17-year-old girl who was her daughter’s girlfriend while they were both high school students

“The woman didn’t want my daughter turning her daughter gay,” Ramirez told the INDY, adding that Evans “didn’t really comment” about her child’s sexuality, “but how she treated her—I knew where she was coming from.”

“Pat went there,” Ramirez says. “She was nasty and rude. Her whole demeanor was disrespectful and rude. She’s a bully.”

Ramirez says she went to court several times with her daughter before the other mom dropped the case.

“Don’t say you’re a Christian and you can’t do the one thing God commanded each and every one of us to do: love people,” Ramirez says of Evans. “God is love.”

Questions about whether Evans could rule fairly with cases involving members of the LGBTQ community came up again early last month when she posted photos on social media about her attendance at an event to receive a Domestic Violence Heroes Award with Lt. Governor Mark Robinson, who made public comments calling transgenderism and homosexuality “filth.”

Evans is campaigning with a group of candidates who have come together as “Better Bull City.” The other candidates include Jonathan Wilson, who is challenging Satana Deberry for district attorney; Jessica Major, who is vying for a district court seat held by incumbent Dave Hall; school board candidates Jasper Fleming and Donald Hughes; and Clay Aiken, the openly gay 2003 American Idol runner-up who is running for the US House seat in District 4.

In a statement to the INDY this week, Aiken said that he’s a Christian and is disappointed that “anyone would assume someone to be anti-LGBT based on their Christian faith.”

“The God I worship loves all people, and in every encounter I have had with Pat Evans through the years, I’ve experienced only the same type of love and acceptance from her,” Aiken said.

Aiken added that Evans was the very first elected official in Durham to call and congratulate him when he entered the US House District 4 race.

“I’ve seen her be a champion, a supporter, and a friend to me and to many LGBT people, including her own openly gay son,” Aiken said. “She’s shared wisdom from her decades of public service with me and other aspiring LGBT leaders, like Donald Hughes. I have never once felt anything but loved and respected by Judge Evans.”

In an April 8 social media post Evans dances in her judicial robes while demanding folks “put some respect on her name.”

Activists, residents, and members of the local legal community who say they have been berated and brow-beaten by Evans ask that the sentiment be reciprocal.

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to [email protected].

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