Ricky Marquise Hunt, 26, had been sitting in Courtroom 1 in High Point since 8:30 a.m. It was Thursday, and District Court Judge Avery Crump had worked through a docket with 211 cases for traffic and misdemeanor criminal offenses. Hunt was among the last handful of defendants when the prosecutor called his name at 2:30 p.m.
Hunt was up on two charges: a driving-while-license-revoked-not-impaired offense from 2016, and assault on a female from 2017. He elected to represent himself. The prosecutor announced they were dismissing the driving-while-license-revoked charge, and Hunt said he was pleading not guilty on the assault charge. The complainant, the grandmother of Hunt’s wife, was present. Testimony during the trial revealed that the altercation occurred when Hunt decided to take his small child against the great-grandmother’s wishes. She pulled at his arm while he held the child, and he pulled away from her. She lost her balance and fell. Both the accuser and the accused expressed contrition about how they had conducted themselves. Judge Crump found Hunt not guilty.
Then, a Guilford County Sheriff’s Deputy appeared behind Hunt and started to place handcuffs on his wrists. Both the defendant and the judge appeared startled. The prosecutor explained that Judge Crump had issued an order for arrest the day before when Hunt failed to appear in court on a separate driving-while-license-revoked-not-impaired charge from 2017.
“It’s going to be recalled,” Judge Crump said from the bench, hastily signing a new order.
The deputy removed the cuffs, and Judge Crump informed Hunt that his next appearance would be April 4, while admonishing him to think about how he’d treated his grandmother-in-law next time he needed a babysitter.
The courts can seem vast and impersonal to the defendants who cycle through the Guilford County system — the third largest in the state. The complex interplay among four institutional actors — law enforcement, prosecution, public and private defense lawyers, and judges — shapes both the massive caseload and the care with which justice is dispensed to individual defendants.
On May 8, Guilford County voters will choose someone to fill one of the most powerful positions in the machinery of local justice: the district attorney. Unlike the sheriff, whose jurisdiction excludes Greensboro and High Point, the district attorney is responsible for the prosecution of every single criminal defendant in Guilford County.
The announced retirement of District Attorney Doug Henderson, who has served three terms, opens the office to new leadership for the first time in 12 years. Two women, both Democrats like Henderson, have filed for the position. Stephanie Reese has worked in the office as an assistant district attorney for 17 years. The other candidate is the district court judge who heard Ricky Hunt’s assault case on Feb. 22. On Tuesday afternoon, Avery Crump completed a final order, walked down the hall to submit her resignation from the bench, and then drove to Raleigh to file for election as Guilford County District Attorney.
Henderson easily defeated a Republican opponent during his first election in 2006, and since then he’s run unopposed. His retirement clears the way for new leadership in a role few Guilford County voters have likely given much thought. Voters will entrust extraordinary power in one of two women, neither of whom is a household name in Guilford County.
During a town-hall meeting hosted by Democratic members of the Guilford County delegation to the state General Assembly on Tuesday evening, Catherine Netter, a substitute teacher who previously worked as a detention officer for the sheriff’s office, implored people in the audience to pay attention to the district attorney race. Afterwards, she explained how the discretion exercised by the district attorney can determine how poor people experience the court system.
“When you stack the charges I can’t afford bail and I’m stuck in jail,” Netter said. “By the time you reduce the charges, hell, I’ve already served the time.
“If you’re arrested, they’re going to take you downtown, make you take off your civilian clothes, have you squat and cough while they check you for contraband,” she continued. “You might see your name in the papers. The fact that the case is dismissed doesn’t compensate for what you went through. You’ve already been disgraced.”
Reese expressed support for current programs that she said already help reduce the number of people in jail.
“The DA’s office works closely with pre-trial services in determining what defendants’ past records are so we can set bond appropriately,” she said. “Pre-trial services has also been working with [the Greensboro Police Department] on the electronic-monitoring program. All of those programs are designed to see if there are alternatives. I’m in favor of working with law enforcement in the community to develop and support alternatives. Nobody believes that spending time in custody is going to make the situation better, but there are some people because of their crimes, because of their record, they pose a threat to the community, and those are the people we focus on.”
Crump cited her handling Ricky Hunt’s missed court date on his driving-while-license-revoked charge as an example of how she gives defendants the benefit of the doubt and seeks to avoid unnecessary jail time. Based on the fact that he showed up for court at 8:30 a.m., she said she was willing to believe that his absence the previous day was an honest mistake.
“There was no point in him being arrested for a traffic case which is minor,” Crump said. “It would have been a lot of waste and time. That’s a very minor Class 3 misdemeanor. It could be just someone has an unpaid ticket.”
Both Reese and Crump said they plan to be more visible than Henderson, who doesn’t directly prosecute cases and typically delegates questions from the media to Howard Neumann, the office’s chief assistant district attorney.
“My big goal for our office is that I work really hard to keep our community safe and I work for just results in cases,” Reese said. “I think an important part of that is reaching out and involving the community more and being able to spend more time to hear the concerns and trying to find answers to the problems that we have. I’ve prosecuted and tried every kind of case, from murder to robbery. I’ve specialized in financial crimes like identity theft and case with abuse of the elderly.”
Prior to her election to the bench in 2008, Crump worked as an assistant district attorney in Guilford County for nine years. Before that, she held the same job in Bronx County, NY.
“I’ll be a more hands-on district attorney,” Crump said. “I have a history of prosecuting cases. When I get back in that office I will be prosecuting. I’ll delegate some, but I’m also going to be in the courtroom. I’m a worker.”
Both candidates said won’t continue the current district attorney’s practice of delegating press duties.
“I think it’s part of the job,” Reese said.
While Crump cautioned that she won’t have a lot of spare time, she said, “I do see myself giving interviews.”
Both candidates said they’re prepared to provide the leadership needed to help the county deal with increased juvenile caseloads as North Carolina ends the practice of prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds as adults beginning in late 2019.
Reese said she would work to ensure that staff communicates well with victims to ensure that they feel respected and have the opportunity to give testimony.
“Unless you’re immersed in the system it’s very confusing,” she said. “It’s not like television. I envision taking our people that we have in place and trying to add to them. We need to make sure that we’re making direct contact [with victims] and make sure they’re notified if they want to be notified.”
Crump said there’s no excuse for communication with victims to fall through.
“Under my leadership, there will always be good communication with all victims,” she said. “I made sure as a judge that the victim was always contacted before we moved forward with cases.”
CJ Brinson, a racial justice activist and former candidate for Greensboro City Council, said he plans to raise several issues with candidates during the campaign. He said he’s already spoken with Reese. Brinson said he will ask candidates for district attorney if they would support signature bond or $1 bail for nonviolent offenders and deferred prosecution or alternative courts for marijuana possession and similar offenses, and whether they would be willing to prosecute police officers for murder, excessive force, tampering with evidence and other breaches.
Crump, like Reese, said as district attorney she would be able to look at alleged criminal misconduct by police officer with impartiality.
“I can always promise you when a case comes into the office, I will look at the evidence,” she said. “I don’t come in with favoritism on either side.”
Reese said she would hold police officers to the same standards as any other citizen.
“There’s nothing incredibly new that there’s an officer in that shooting,” she said. “They’re professionals. There are consequences like there are for anybody if you break the law. People don’t realize this: We’re also incredibly lucky that the vast majority of our law enforcement officers are incredible stewards of our community, and they don’t support those who don’t have the same goals.”
The candidates are likely to receive more pointed questions as the campaign progresses.
“If we’re going to have accountability with the new DA,” Brinson said, “we need to establish that early.”
This article previously included a quote to the effect that the two candidates are the first women to run for Guilford County district attorney. In fact, Julia Hejazi ran against Doug Henderson in the 2006 Democratic primary. The article has been edited to correct the error.