Durham County DA criticizes felons with firearms report: ‘Not well researched’

Durham’s district attorney is rebutting a report that suggests the city can help reduce reduce violent crime by prosecuting a single offense that in recent years has been getting dismissed half the time.

“I don’t think it was well-researched,” Satana Deberry said in an interview. “He didn’t talk to anybody in my office. He didn’t talk to, I don’t think, any lawyers, public defenders, private attorneys at all. ... He didn’t talk to any of the people who do this work every day. “

Last month, Jim Stuit, Durham County’s gang reduction strategy manager, released the report “Felons with Firearms in Durham, NC.”

It reported there were 2,051 shooting incidents and 662 people shot during a three year period that ends in 2018 — all before Deberry was elected — and explored potential solutions, including tracking the outcome of a single charge: possession of a firearm by a felon.

There were 363 arrests for possession of a firearm by a felon, or an average of 121 per year. About 53% of the cases in those years were voluntarily dismissed.

Stuit said he contacted the DA’s Office gang prosecutor and District Court Judge Pat Evans but neither responded to his questions. Evans declined to comment for this article.

Stuit spoke with two federal prosecutors, including one who was an assistant district attorney in Durham during the period the report examined.

‘Tenuous, at best, connection’

The report was released the same week 9-year-old Z’yon Person was killed in a drive-by shooting and as community members were debating how to respond to violent crime and whether to hire more police.

City Manager Tom Bonfield described it as an opportunity to change the conversation.

Deberry, however, disagrees, with the report’s emphasis and said no research supports its contention the possession charge is an indicator of violence.

Firearm by a felon is “a status” offense, not a gun crime, she said.

“Just because somebody is a felon doesn’t mean they are a violent person,” Deberry said. “There are many felonies in which violence is not involved. That is a tenuous, at best, connection, and I don’t think it is true.”

In a separate statement, Deberry’s office said “possession of a firearm by a felon has been disproportionately charged against African-Americans in Durham.”

“When that charge is filed alone, the DA’s office considers whether a person is truly a danger to our community, which is not indicated by his or her status as a person with a prior felony conviction,” the statement said.

According to the report, 95% of those charged with the crime within the city limits from 2016-2018 were black.

About 69 percent charged outside the city were black.

Boston University gun law study

Stuit said he focused on possession of a firearm by a felon, a class G felony, after he completed a 2016 report on gun crimes and gun arrests.

His August report cited research by Boston University School of Public Health professor Michael Siegel, who examined firearm laws and overall homicide and suicide rates at the state level across all 50 states over a 25-year period.

His study concluded that:

States with universal background checks had a 15% lower firearm homicide rate than states without such laws.

States that prohibit people convicted of violent crimes from having guns had an 18.1% lower firearm homicide rate.

Siegel said his findings support the Durham report looking at that possession charge.

“If they are that blatant, that they are wiling to just blatantly ignore federal law, that says to me that they are at a very high risk,” he said.

Stuit also stands by the report.

“Just as Joe Citizen who reads about the homicides and the people involved, the suspects and victims, seeing the proliferation of people carrying weapons and using them, I would have to say someone who is prohibited from having a firearm, aka a felon, (but carries one anyway) that’s a huge issue,” he said.

City Councilman Charlie Reece, an attorney and co-char of the Durham Crime Cabinet, said people must understand how the judicial system works.

For much of the last decade, the DA’s Office has been underfunded and understaffed, he said. “There is less prosecutorial time to handle some of these cases,” he said.

Deberry and others also note that gun possession charges are sometimes dismissed under deals in which people plead guilty to more serious charges.

Beyond monitoring the prosecution of firearms possession charges, Stuit’s report also recommends:

Executing a social media campaign to raise awareness of the risks of felons carrying a firearm.

Reinvigorating the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative to focus on the most violent offenders.

Increasing searches of people who are on probation and are repeat weapon offenders.

Why some carry guns

Andrea Muffin Hudson said some felons carry guns not because they intend to commit a crime but because they are scared.

Hudson is the director of N.C. Community Bail Fund of Durham, which posts bond for people whose bail is $2,000 or less as part of an initiative to fight the criminalization of poverty.

“Not only are we being killed by each other, we are being killed by police too,” she said. “I think there are circumstances leading up to them feeling that (carrying a gun) is the only option that they have.”

Rodney Williams, who organizes marches against violence through his organization Walk for Life, said extenuating circumstances need to be considered.

Someone who hasn’t been in trouble with the law in years might have a gun in his home to protect his family, he said, but that is very different than “these young gangbangers walking around the street with a gun.”

“It should be case to case,” said Williams, who was convicted of a felony more than 20 years ago. “But the gangbangers need to be held accountable.”

‘We need to be clear’

Bail bondsman Omar Beasley is a father of three who won’t let his teenage son attend house parties anymore due to fear of shootings.

On one side, you want to be fair and sympathetic to those caught with a firearm, he said. One the other, you need to be keep as many illegal firearms off the street as possible, he said.

Omar Beasley

Beasley is chairman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, but said his comments only reflect his personal opinion.

“In my opinion, it has become soft,” Beasley said, describing prosecution in recent years. “This is what I am hearing from people in the streets. That there is no fear that they are going to get locked up for carrying guns.”

Mindy Solie said she was “horrified” to learn from Stuit’s report that felons with firearms are dealt with less harshly than she thought.

Solie is founder of Durham Court Watch, a volunteer organization that tracks court cases, and is an owner of Trinity Properties, which owns and leases residential housing.

Guns create trauma for victims and neighborhoods, she said, and even the perception that officials aren’t taking the charges seriously has her concerned about Durham’s larger reputation as a safe place.

“Our community continuing to thrive as a vibrant, dynamic, welcoming, diverse city is dependent on public safety and the safety of our citizens and the perception of safety in our city,” she said.

The DA’s Office isn’t currently tracking its numbers but is working with Duke Law School to identify possible next steps to follow.

Stuit said 2019 data on firearms convictions won’t be available until August 2020, but he is trying to take a closer look by following cases.

Meanwhile, city and county officials are reviewing the report.

“The report makes a series of recommendation that policy makers at every level are considering right now,” Reece said.

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.