Waiting to see judgment

John Miles, grandson of a student assaulted late in 2019 by former Vance County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Warren Durham, speaks to reporters before Durham’s sentencing on Thursday. Miles said the state needs to strengthen its assault laws to better protect children harmed by law enforcement officers.

HENDERSON — A former Vance County Sheriff’s Office deputy who twice body-slammed an 11-year-old middle-school student to the floor will serve 55 days in jail for assaulting the child and 18 months’ probation for failing to do his duty.

Chief District Judge John W. Davis handed down the sentence Thursday after the former deputy, Warren Durham, pleaded guilty to both charges.

Durham has to report to the Vance County Jail on Jan. 18.

The incident that triggered the charges happened on Dec. 12, 2019, at Vance County Middle School, where Durham was working as a school resource officer, and was recorded by the building’s security cameras.

Sheriff Curtis Brame fired Durham four days later.

Davis decided on the sentence after reviewing the security-camera video, the medical records of both the child and Durham, and after hearing from the former deputy and from members of the victim’s family.

District Attorney Mike Waters asked the judge to issue a maximum, 105-day active jail sentence.

For the family, “something that would speak to justice would be to see this man walk through those doors,” Waters said, alluding to the route prisoners take from the courthouse to the jail. “That needs to happen.”

Durham’s lawyer, Mikael Gross, countered by arguing an active sentence would interrupt the medical treatment Durham is receiving for chronic post-traumatic stress stemming from his service as a combat veteran in the U.S. military.

Gross said the child suffered a bruise and a pulled shoulder, but the judge said the youth also had been “slightly concussed for a while.”

The lack of broken bones led Waters to lodge misdemeanor charges against Durham, rather than the felony charges the family wanted. Davis on Thursday said the assault, while “horrific,” did not rise to the level of a felony under state law.

Nonetheless, “this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated,” he said.

Depending on how the child had landed on the school floor, “we’re an inch or two from a neck breaking or a spinal-column injury,” Davis said. “Whatever you think your maker is, that’s what the difference is.”

The judge added that the incident, in addition to traumatizing the 11-year-old, probably similarly harmed another child who witnessed it and other pupils at Vance County Middle School who heard of it.

In arguing for leniency, Gross emphasized that Durham had been a 31-year military veteran who served overseas in both Iraq wars, in Kuwait and in Afghanistan. He saw a number of his comrades die and received a Bronze Star for his actions in combat.

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2006 and at that time was rated “50% disabled” by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Gross said. Later — Waters said it was in 2016 — doctors upgraded the diagnosis to chronic PTSD with anxiety and adjustment disorder.

Waters added that there also was “another diagnosis immediately after this incident.” And before it, there had been a number of deaths in Durham’s immediate and extended family, Gross said.

After moving over to the Reserves, Durham worked in law enforcement for 13 years, with the sheriff’s offices in Warren and Vance counties.

Gross said that when he questioned Durham about the incident, the former deputy told him he didn’t remember what happened.

“He snapped,” Gross said.

Waters argued that Durham’s issues shouldn’t shield him from a jail sentence.

“He knew this. We all have to be honest about where we are and what we’re fit for,” Water said, indicating that Durham should’ve factored his condition into his choice of a post-military career. “That’s my concern. He was armed with this knowledge, and we were not.”

The child’s mother told Davis that Dec. 12, 2019, was “the worst day of my life,” in part because “I was not able to protect him.”

His grandfather, John Miles, pastor of Risen Faith Outreach Ministry, asked Davis to bear in mind that “my grandson could’ve died there,” and acknowledged that it’s taken 13 months to resolve the case because the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the operations of the state’s courts.

Durham apologized to the family, and said he will “be praying for each and every one of you.” But it was clear the apology didn’t go down well. One of the child’s family members walked out, and his mother turned her head, buried it in another relative’s shoulder, and cried.

Davis said that after his release from jail, Durham will have 30 days to give a probation officer a record of his mental-health diagnosis, treatment and the anticipated path of his future treatment over the remainder of his term on probation.

Durham also has to work with his probation officer to select eight community groups to work with. In addition, he has to surrender his law-enforcement certification for the duration of his sentence, a certification that he may lose outright as state regulators already are reviewing it. They’re scheduled to make a decision about that in February.

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.