Durham's new reform-minded district attorney faces tough questions at town hall

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A very large crowd came armed with tough questions for Durham's top prosecutor at a town hall event Thursday night.

Satana Deberry campaigned to be a reformer - someone who would work to make the criminal justice system more just for Durham's marginalized communities.

There were some in the crowd at St. Joseph's AME Church who think Deberry hasn't delivered enough on those promises and others who worry the reforms will go too far. The event follows a year in Durham when 190 people were shot and 32 were killed.

The pews were packed. Some came outraged by the violence and demanding answers.

"People are talking to me as I travel North Carolina asking me, 'What's going on in Durham County?! What's going on in Durham County?!'" said Durham resident Brenda Pollard.

One year in as Durham's new district attorney, Deberry hosted the town hall to explain the changes she's making in the way criminal justice is handed out in the city -- taking the focus off low-level, non-violent crimes, refusing to prosecute children for offenses at school and redoubling efforts to get serial offenders, gang members, violent criminals tied to illegal drugs off the streets.

"And while we're always trying to get the best outcomes for victims, our real client is justice," Deberry told the crowd.

A tough question came from a grieving grandfather whose grandson was killed in Burlington by a convicted armed robber out on probation from Vance County. While the crimes did not occur in Durham, the man expressed concern about the county's new priorities on plea deals and probation.

"How do you all play a part in being responsible for turning that murderer loose back in the community," he asked. "How does that help the family? How does that help the community? Hell, how does that help the ones that committed the murder?"

Deberry offered her condolence and answered, "This is not a science. We cannot predict down the road what's going to happen. What I can say is we don't take any homicide plea, lightly, ever."

Community advocate Debbie Long does not think Deberry is doing enough to keep her promise to end cash bail for non-violent offenders.

"Can you be more vigilant in making those (bond) recommendations (to judges)," Long told Deberry "And what do you plan to do about actually reducing cash money bail."

Deberry defended her office on the issue, saying, "For low-level offenses, our recommendation is an unsecured bond - generally, that's misdemeanors. Misdemeanors in which we ask for bond are things like assault on a female or other domestic violence cases."

Deberry's team of assistant district attorneys also took questions. One of the big frustrations in the crowd was over the length of investigations into homicides and sexual assaults - some sex assault victims waiting years for rape kits to be tested.

RELATED: Untested sexual assault kits in the Triangle make up over a quarter of kits statewide

The DA's office answer: there's no dedicated crime lab in Durham. The backlog is at the state level lab.

"That takes time. We're not the only ones sending DNA samples to the SBI lab. It's being done all over the state of North Carolina. So, sometimes we have to wait our turn."

Deberry also has ushered in the county's first unique special victims unit. That team now tasked with the backlog of unsolved sexual assaults.

They say they've charged three cold-case rapes since SVU's creation -- including the arrest this week for a five-year-old unsolved sex assault on Ellerbe Creek Trail.
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