HENDERSON — Jury trials have resumed in Vance County for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Now, court officials just need to find some jurors.
Anticipating that the job would be more difficult than usual, Clerk of Court Henry Gupton’s office for an upcoming session of Superior Court has issued 160 jury summonses, when before the pandemic’s arrival last spring it normally would’ve issued less than 100.
That’s because across three or four planned Superior Court sessions this spring, more than 200 people have failed to respond to their summons.
“I don’t know if they’re still afraid of COVID or what’s going on,” Gupton said, adding that expansion of summons numbers is about trying “to get more people” in the pool for upcoming trials.
He added that the clerk’s office includes in a summons a two-page questionnaire with COVID-screening questions, and a letter from Senior Resident Superior Court Judge John Dunlow explaining the precautions officials are taking at the courthouse to reduce the chances of someone being exposed to the coronavirus.
But what the clerk’s office terms the “unusually large percentage” of non-responses to jury invitations has also forced it to ask for help from the Vance County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Curtis Brame said the list of non-responders includes 215 names, and that he’s asked patrol officers to lend a hand in tracking down the people on it when they’re not tied up answering calls.
The problem is as “there’s no phone numbers attached” to the list, deputies have to find people at their homes, and in some cases have to cope with the fact that a person’s given address is just a post-office box, Brame said.
But the task is important because “I think they’ve got two murder trials set up, and without jurors they’ll have to try again” to schedule them, Brame said.
The previous hold on jury trials began early in the pandemic as part of the various emergency measures the state imposed to enforce social distancing as a way of slowing the spread of COVID-19.
The 2020 election, however, yielded a change at the top of the hierarchy of the North Carolina court system when Paul Newby replaced Cherie Beasley as chief justice of the state Supreme Court. He promptly loosened the reins on holding trials, albeit with the direction that local officials should act with “due regard for the COVID-19 situation in their respective districts.”
Dunlow responded to that by issuing an order that allowed a resumption of jury trials on the Superior Court level after Feb. 26. As Feb. 27 and Feb. 28 fell on a weekend, that meant resumption on March 1.
Jury proceedings in District Court civil proceedings remain on hold, with Chief District Judge John Davis saying a resumption in the lower court will “be addressed no later than June 30” if not earlier.
The social-distancing precautions for jurors amount to making sure they can remain 6 feet apart at all times, in both the jury room and the courtroom, Gupton said.
The jury room is large enough for jurors to sit 6 feet apart for meetings and deliberations. In the courtroom, jurors are assigned seats in what normally would be the chamber’s spectator benches. As for the actual courtroom jury box, “we’re not allowing anybody to sit in that [because] because there’s just not enough room,” Gupton said
Clerks have also arranged the placement of TV monitors so jurors and lawyers can see every exhibit without having to crowd together. When sensitive exhibits like crime-scene photos are on display, judges have the option of clearing the room of spectators, Gupton said.
Maintenance workers come in regularly to disinfect the key facilities. “We’re doing everything we can possibly do to keep everybody safe in that courtroom and in that jury room,” Gupton said. “We’ve even got baskets for new and used ink pens, so nobody has to touch a used pen. We sanitize those later.”
He added that the courthouse has “had one successful jury trial already,” of a case involving a weapons charge, and Safety-wise,” it went very well.”
Sheriff’s deputies conduct screenings for COVID-19 symptoms or contacts at the courthouse door, using a machine that gauges a would-be entrant’s temperature and also takes their picture.
All the usual questions are asked, and “we’ve turned a few people away for that reason,” Gupton said, adding that in the course of devising the protocols, the clerk’s office had two people from Granville-Vance Public Health come in to review the operation and offer advice.
“We don’t want an outbreak in this courthouse,” he added, acknowledging that a number of people on his staff tested positive for the virus back in the late fall and early winter, though none “really got sick.”
Contact Ray Gronberg at email@example.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.
HENDERSON — A shooting on Monday left a man dead and Vance County sheriff’s deputies looking for a male juvenile they consider both “a person of interest” in the case and someone who’s armed and dangerous.
The incident happened in rural Vance County, in a small neighborhood on Cousins Lane off Fred Royster Road northwest of Henderson.
Deputies responding to a call found two women there along with the victim, 21-year-old Demonte Southerland.
Southerland was on the ground with multiple gunshot wounds. Sheriff Curtis Brame said he was later pronounced dead at Maria Parham Health.
Investigations have obtained a juvenile petition authorizing the arrest of the youth wanted in the case. But as of late Tuesday afternoon he remained at large.
The sheriff indicated that the state’s “raise the age” law affected what information his office could release about the youth.
Since Dec. 1, 2019, the state has included 16- and 17-year-olds among those under the jurisdiction of North Carolina’s juvenile courts. Before then, the cutoff limited juvenile jurisdiction to youth under age 16.
HENDERSON — The local basketball community was left stunned when Roy Williams announced his retirement following a stellar 33-year career between Kansas University and UNC Chapel Hill.
Henderson Collegiate men’s basketball head coach George Marshall was among those taken aback by Williams’ decision to retire, adding that the moment comes during a time of immense change within the sport.
“I was surprised because I felt like the decision was done without anyone thinking he was going to retire this early,” Marshall said. “The team had been coming off a successful season and people thought he would be around for at least a few more years but when you step back and look at the situation, this makes sense for him.”
Success followed Williams throughout his career, as he took Kansas to four Final Four appearances before taking over at his alma mater of UNCl, where he led the men’s basketball program to three NCAA Tournament championships.
Many players who were under Williams’ tutelage would later go on to have solid careers in the NBA. Among them are 10-time NBA All-Star Paul Pierce, and Danny Green, who has won NBA championships with three different organizations.
Marshall himself does not know Williams personally but he has had the opportunity to watch a couple of UNC practices in person so he can learn more about his coaching style and apply some of those techniques to his players.
While Marshall said that Williams will be remembered for his championships and 903 victories, he wants people to remember that Williams’ determination to focus on relationships was a main factor towards his efficiency as a leader and role model for his players.
Williams “put his entire emphasis of success on relationships,” Marshall said. “He may have had teams that struggled but at the end of the day, an overwhelming majority of players that Coach Williams has had love him to death and see him as a father figure. They realized that in the blink of an eye, he would be there to support them through any trials and tribulations they went through in life.”
Crossroads Christian head coach Scottie Richardson has also had plenty of interactions with Williams during his coaching career, ranging from sitting in on several UNC practices to learning from him at coaching clinics around the United States.
Richardson has taken a lot of notes from Williams’ tenures at Kansas and UNC when it came to establishing relationships with his players and building a culture and game plan that could help lead his programs to success.
“A part of our fast-break system, which involves inbounding the ball in 0.5 seconds and catching on the run, came from Roy Williams when he was at Kansas,” Richardson said. “He inspired a lot of our system and he will definitely be missed.”
Richardson added that there are many lessons the current generation of players and coaches can take away from Williams’ career. He said having passion for the game and ensuring that your players believe in your teachings propelled Williams to so many wins, and can do the same for others.
“To me, [Williams] was always a player’s coach,” Richardson said. “He got on the guys when he needed to but he was a genuine, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of a guy. He inspired all of us and we’re obviously going to miss seeing that Carolina blue sport coat on the sidelines.”
Marshall said that Williams simplified basketball through his mantra of ‘play hard, play smart, play together,’ which he believes is something that players in the high school, collegiate and professional levels need to hear and understand.
Now a year removed from an N.C. High School Athletic Association title of his own, Marshall said that he wouldn’t be in his current position without figures like Williams setting the benchmark on how coaches are supposed to interact with the people on their rosters.
While Marshall does not know what the immediate future is for UNC basketball, he said that Williams will always have a lasting impact on the game.
“As a young coach, [Williams] was really inspirational,” Marshall said. “Moving forward, I’m going to hopefully learn more from him and study more about his strategies and the types of cultural messages he would send to his players. He was a great man and I’m really proud to be a UNC fan for that reason.”