David Waters sat on the courtroom bench, his arms hugging a gray folder filled with printed-out Nextdoor messages describing an aggressive driver who had bullied northern Durham drivers for months.
Waters didn’t know what to expect. There had been so many court dates that pushed the resolution back again and again and again.
A District Court judge had found Maurice Beckwith, 52, of Durham guilty of assault with a deadly weapon — his car — and sentenced him to 150 days in jail. But Beckwith appealed the ruling to Superior Court, where Waters sat late last month.
Beckwith was planning to plea to a deal, under which he would serve no jail time unless he violated 18 months of probation. The probation would run at the same time as another probation sentence in a second case that included a reckless-driving conviction.
Waters thought Beckwith should serve jail time, but he didn’t object to the deal during the nearly 30-minute hearing. He didn’t have to.
Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier did.
“It seems like he is getting a better deal after he has been found guilty of another reckless driving,” said Rozier, a visiting judge based in Wake County. “And I am trying to figure out why he should get a lighter sentence when at this point in time we have more information than the day he was found guilty the first time.”
‘He had people scared’
Waters is one of many northern Durham residents who encountered an aggressive driver in the Guess Road area, north of Interstate 85.
They described the driver as following too closely, laying on the horn, and getting in front of motorists and braking suddenly. The warnings spread on Facebook and social media site Nextdoor. Residents began tracking the driver’s movements and working with police.
“He had people scared,” said Netty Chandler who kept neighbors updated and provided a number to call police.
There were “so many private messages of people saying how scared they were. ‘Oh my daughter just had a run in with this person. My mother just had a run in with that person,’” said Chandler, a retired investigator with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. who had a run-in with the aggressive driver in April 2017.
It was a Sunday in October 2016, when Waters drove down Guess Road on his way home from church and stopped to turn onto Horton Road.
“He starts honking at me,” Waters said about a man he later identified as Beckwith.
Waters turned and continued down Horton. Beckwith passed him – despite a double yellow line — and slammed on his brakes, Waters said.
“Basically, he’s trying to cause me to wreck him,” Waters, 42, said.
Waters avoided Beckwith by slamming on his brakes, he said. Then Beckwith stopped his car in the middle of Horton Road and got out.
“I am thinking he is going to really attack me, that he is coming at me,” Waters said. “He goes to his trunk and opens his trunk, and at this point I am calling 911. I am thinking there is going to be a gun.”
Beckwith closed his trunk and got back in his car, Waters said.
Both cars continued down Horton, with Beckwith “brake checking” Waters the whole way, Waters said.
Beckwith turned right on Duke Street and Waters turned left. Waters stopped at the police substation on Latta Road to report the incident.
“Y’all need to go after this guy,” he told police.
In February 2017 the Durham County Sheriff’s Office and the Durham Police Department issued warnings on their social media pages about a man in northern Durham harassing drivers and possibly trying to force a crash.
At least six people had described similar experiences within the previous few weeks and more in the previous months, according to a letter emailed to the Durham City Council and posts in the Parents of Northern Durham Facebook group.
In March 2017, Beckwith was arrested and charged with reckless driving, a misdemeanor, and driving too closely, a traffic infraction, in a case in which an officer captured his driving on dash-cam video
The case was delayed as Beckwith’s competency to stand trial was evaluated. According to court documents, Beckwith’s counsel was made aware in August 2017 that Beckwith had been involuntarily committed to Duke Hospital. In December 2017, the defense’s expert found Beckwith unable to stand trial and assist in his defense, but the state’s expert later successfully refuted that opinion in a hearing.
Michael Lawlor, 36, said his grandmother and then wife encountered the aggressive driver, and then he witnessed similar behavior and confronted Beckwith.
Lawlor said he didn’t know how closely police were working to catch Beckwith until the court hearings and assault with a deadly weapon trial.
“[Officer Gabriel Munter] really stepped up and took a lot of time to catch this guy,” Lawlor said.
On Feb. 13, 2018, Beckwith pleaded guilty under a plea deal before District Court Judge Shamieka Rhinehart to the March 2017 charges and was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
The jail time was suspended for 18 months of supervised probation. Beckwith’s license would be suspended for six months, he would have to complete 50 hours of community service, and he also had to obtain a mental health assessment and attend two programs.
However, that sentence was voided after Beckwith appealed to Superior Court. On June 12, Superior Court Judge Becky Holt, a visiting judge from Wake County, handed down a sentence that mirrored the District Court deal, except Holt ordered Beckwith’s license suspension to extend the entire term of an 18-month probation and that he serve 100 hours of community service.
But the case against Beckwith wasn’t over..
At a community Partners Against Crime District 2 meeting last year, an assistant district attorney told Waters he could seek a citizen-initiated warrant for the October 2016 encounter he had coming home from church.
Waters obtained the warrant through a magistrate, and in December 2017 Beckwith was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. A reckless driving charge was added later.
District Court Judge Fred Battaglia found Beckwith guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and reckless driving, after a trial that started May 22, 2018.
He sentenced Beckwith to 150 days in jail and 18 months of probation.
According to court records, Beckwith was previously convicted of driving while license revoked in January 2003 and August 2004.
Back to the hearing
It was nearly 20 minutes into the 27-minute appeal hearing July 24 before Judge Rozier. Waters sat behind Beckwith, staring at the back of his head.
A new plea was on the table.
Assistant District Attorney Ray Griffis Jr. started to outline the case. The probation being proposed in the assault plea deal would run concurrent to the reckless driving sentence. In effect, Beckwith would serve 18 months of probation for both the October 2016 and March 2017 charges unless he violated his probation.
It was then that Rozier started to question the deal, which eliminated the active jail time.
“Generally, whenever somebody does something and they do something else that is very similar to it, their sentence doesn’t get better,” Rozier said. “It usually gets worse.”
In an interview before the hearing, Griffis pointed out that District Court hearings are before a judge, a law expert. Superior Court trials can go before 12 people, and the defendant could end up walking free.
“No justice is done,” if that happens, he said.
The dash-cam recording in the March 2017 reckless driving case was used at the October 2016 assault with a deadly weapon trial to corroborate Waters’ testimony, said Woody Vann, Beckwith’s defense attorney.
“While the video is devastating,” Vann said, “the other evidence that may be related to this matter is somewhat thin and suspect.”
The judge asked whether any mental health issues might mitigate Beckwith’s culpability.
There have been physical health issues, including a brain lesion, that may have had some effect on his action during this time period, Vann said.
Still, Rozier rejected the plea deal.
“In my opinion, based on all the facts I would not be comfortable with the sentence,” he said.
Griffis then asked that case be continued until Aug. 27. Griffis and Vann said future steps could include adjusting the plea, putting the same plea in front of a different judge or trying the case.
Waters said he is glad Rozier said something.
“I am glad the judge kind of stood up for the people of Durham,” he said. “I mean he is a danger.”