DURHAM — First came a defiant gang member's menacing courtroom tirade against jurors who had just convicted him of first-degree murder.
Then on Tuesday, a brawl erupted on the back steps of the county courthouse, a free-for-all that ended with seven people arrested.
The incidents, just eight days apart, gave rise to questions about the safety of a courthouse where lives go on trial and tempers flare.
Although several jurors broke down in tears last week, fearful of the open threat by convicted killer Tyrone Dean, lawyers and other courthouse regulars say they feel safe as they tend to business.
"Nothing's perfect, there are always kinks," said John Fitzpatrick, the defense lawyer who represented Dean in the first-degree murder trial that resulted in a life sentence. "But I think our sheriff's department does a fantastic job. I feel safe and secure."
The fight Tuesday on the courthouse steps broke out shortly before noon near Parrish Street. Details were sketchy about how the scrap began.
But deputies said the seven people arrested had been in a fifth-floor courtroom when Jason Jenson Paylor, also known as Jensen Fitzgerald Paylor, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the March 2006 killing of James Frederick White Jr.
"They got outside on the porch and started to sell woof tickets -- they barked at each other, trying to get a bite," said Capt. Tyson Wrenn, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office.
Whenever the courthouse is open, deputies are stationed just inside the entrances. Every day, hundreds of people pass through the metal detectors, into a place where lives and fortunes can be decided.
Deputies see stare-downs and hear trash-talking when gang-related trials are happening. Arguments in family court can spill out into hallways, stairwells and parking lots.
"You wouldn't see many of these people on Santa's nice list," Wrenn said.
Rarely do the confrontations become physical, but when they do, deputies are quick to respond.
"We have flare-ups, but the courthouse basically is safe," Wrenn said.
In the Wake County courthouse Monday, a physical scuffle broke out between the relatives of a man convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and deputies and police officers.
In that case, the defendant's family tried to get on a courthouse elevator with the victim's family and a detective told them to wait for the next trip.
The tussle broke out, and the defendant's family, numbering nearly 20 people, was escorted out of the courthouse.
It was unclear Tuesday whether the fight on the steps of the Durham County courthouse was gang-related.
David Saacks, the assistant district attorney who tried the Paylor case, said that while there was no clear evidence to link the defendant to a gang, there was mention of gang members in the courtroom Tuesday.
The Dean trial last week gave a much clearer picture of gang life in Durham.
Saacks, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, was in the courtroom when Dean told jurors that he would be a Crips gang member "till the casket drop."
Dean threatened jurors, saying that he would have someone follow them home and that he knew where they worked.
Saacks said it was too early to know whether the outburst would have a chilling effect on potential jurors.
"We'll find out later, when I'm trying to pick jurors, whether they remember this case," Saacks said.
Staff writer Anne Blythe can be reached at 932-8741 or email@example.com.