Crime

Update: Durham County DA reprimands judge who called black, female prosecutor 'third string'

Durham DA Roger Echols
Durham DA Roger Echols The Herald-Sun

The Durham County district attorney has criticized a judge he says belittled a young African-American prosecutor in a talk to local Republicans last week.

In a statement Monday, District Attorney Roger Echols responded to comments by District Court Judge Fred Battaglia about Echols' assigning the cases of those charged in last summer's toppling of a Confederate statue to Assistant District Attorney Ameshia Cooper.

"These comments were inappropriate, unnecessary, and inaccurate,” Echols wrote. “At a time when women, especially women of color, are still marginalized, it is unfortunate that a member of the judiciary would refer to any woman with such little regard.”

In court Feb. 19, Battaglia dismissed three misdemeanor charges against two defendants in the case and found another person not guilty.

The next day, Echols announced his office was dropping the charges against the five remaining defendants, saying it would be a misuse of resources to proceed on the same evidence that had led to the earlier dismissals.

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Public criticism led the judge to meet with a group of about 45 people at the GOP headquarters on Mangum Street last week.

At that meeting and in response to a question posed by a resident about the prosecution, Battaglia used a sports metaphor.

He referenced, the then-forthcoming basketball game between Duke and Carolina, saying, “If the third string goes in tonight at 9 p.m., what do you think is going to happen? … I was raised old school. If you try a case, you try it hard. But if you run your third string, you know what is going to happen.”

The judge told the group that defense attorney Scott Holmes, who represented those accused of damaging public property by toppling the statue, "is an excellent lawyer."

“And then we have Ameshia Cooper," he continued, "who I think is a very lovely person and I think highly of her, with very little experience. With very little experience.”

Echols' statement defended Cooper, saying she has over five years of legal experience and previously worked in the Mecklenburg and Orange County district attorney offices. She joined the Durham County office in 2015, he said, and became the sole prosecutor assigned to Juvenile Delinquency Court, prosecuting rapes, assaults, armed robberies and killings.

"Because of her abilities and understanding of the law, she was promoted to Superior Court and assigned to the property division," Echols wrote. "I have unwavering confidence in her abilities."

Battaglia declined to comment Monday afternoon on Echols' criticism.

The judge dismissed the charges against the first three defendants due to lack of evidence, he said. The judge also told the Republican gathering that he had not seen Echols in the courtroom during the proceeding. “I just know, I saw a young lady in there with no help," he said.

In his statement, Echols said he is always available to provide support to his staff. "Any narrative that implies that they are neglected if and when they need assistance is misleading and inaccurate," he wrote.

Echols is up for reelection this fall will face opposition in the form of the two Democratic candidates, attorneys Satana Deberry and Daniel Meier.

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