Report: Durham officials have dismissed serious gun charges — and felons have known it

9-year-old killed, 8-year-old injured in Durham shooting

Durham police are investigating the fatal shooting of a 9 year old boy, Zion Person, Sunday night. An eight year old was injured. The boys were in a Ford Escape shot by someone in a Honda Accord, as reported by our media partner, ABC11 News.
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Durham police are investigating the fatal shooting of a 9 year old boy, Zion Person, Sunday night. An eight year old was injured. The boys were in a Ford Escape shot by someone in a Honda Accord, as reported by our media partner, ABC11 News.

This story was updated Aug. 21, 2019, to include comments from District Attorney Satana Deberry and Police Chief C.J. Davis.

As Durham leaders and residents grapple with gun violence that has killed or harmed at least five children in recent weeks, a new report questions how seriously the local legal system is taking serious weapons violations.

A report, “Felons with Firearms in Durham County,” shows 363 arrests for possessing a firearm as a felon from 2016 to 2018, or 121 per year. It says 53% of the cases in those years were voluntarily dismissed.

The report also indicates people sent to prison from Durham for possession as a firearm as their most serious crime have declined steeply. From 2016 to 2018, there was a 54 percent decrease in prison entries for that charge (from 35 to 16), while North Carolina saw an 11 percent increase.

“I think it raises questions as to what happens when someone is arrested on that charge,” said report author Jim Stuit, gang reduction strategy manager for Durham County.

Previous felony conviction

The report shows many shooters have been previously convicted of a violent felony. Stuit suggests this relatively small group needs a lot of attention from probation and court officials, along with family and friends who may be able to influence the individual to put the gun down.

Repeat violent offenders should be offered help, Stuit said, and if they don’t take it, they should be prosecuted to “the fullest extent of the law.”

The conversation comes days after 9-year-old Z’yon Person, a student at Penny Road Elementary School in Raleigh was fatally shot in Durham as his aunt drove a group of children to get snow cones.

Z’yon participated in the Boys and Girls Club of Raleigh and on the Capital City Steelers Pop Warner football Mitey Mite Gold team.

“He was a great kid,” said Ralph Capps, president of the Boys and Girl Club. “He was at the club pretty much every day this summer.”

A GoFundMe memorial fund campaign to help the family pay for Z’yon funeral ( ) had raised $1,995 toward a $5,000 goal as of Wednesday afternoon.

Thousands of shootings, hundreds shot

Since 2016, there have been 2,051 reported shootings and 662 people shot in Durham, according to the report.

“Many of these shootings cannot simply be attributed to conflict between gangs or disputes over drug territory,” the report states. “Rather, much of the violence is spurred by everyday disputes, social media interaction or jealousy in relationships by individuals, many of whom are gang members.”

On Wednesday, Durham city and county officials briefly discussed the report at a Gang Reduction Strategy Steering Committee meeting.

District Attorney Satana Deberry cautioned leaders about isolating the possession of a firearm by a felon charge. Deberry took office Jan. 1, 2019, and the report examines charges from 2016 to 2018.

“I can’t speak to these numbers because it was before I was here, but firearm by felon is usually charged in conjunction with other violent crime,” she said. “If the firearm by felon is dismissed it is dismissed by plea deal to much more serious crime,” such as armed robbery or murder.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said the report made him wonder if people see “no consequence for having a firearm” and if that makes them more likely to carry and use a gun in another crime.

“There is no extra consequence for having the firearm,” he said. “It is the other action that carries the consequence, not the firearm.”

After the meeting, Police Chief C.J. Davis said people with felonies having guns is “old news” for law enforcement officials. They talk about it at weekly meetings, she said, as they see individuals with multiple convictions still carrying guns and causing problems in the city.

“It is like, how can somebody have eight felonies and still have a gun, and still be in my face and still be a problem?” Davis said. “It is very complicated to find a fine line between giving people a chance and at the same time making sure our community is safe.”

Former Durham District Attorney Roger Echols said in an email he would have to take a closer look at the 2016-18 cases to see whether they were dismissed as part of plea deals or whether the DA’s office declined to prosecute them after federal officials took up the case.

“ I really can’t speak to the decline in prison sentences without studying this more, including information that the report does not provide,” he wrote.

Joe Murdock's shares his concerns following a shooting that unfolded around 9 p.m. on Sunday, July 28, 2019 at Lynn Haven apartments in Durham. Jerome Edward Fogg, 32 of Raleigh, was found dead and shot in a nearby parking lot.

Many reason for dismissals

A number of factors can influence whether a person is convicted of what crime and in what court, the report and local experts say.

Sometimes individuals face a number of charges from one or more arrests and some of those charges are dismissed as part of a plea bargain, wrote Jeff Welty, professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government and director of the North Carolina Judicial College.

“A defendant may be charged with armed robbery and with possession of a firearm by a felon,” Welty wrote. “If the defendant agrees to plead guilty to the robbery, the State might agree to dismiss the gun charge. There’s nothing nefarious or inappropriate about that.”

Daniel Meier, a Durham defense attorney, said to really know if a dismissal is meaningful, “you need to know what, if anything, wasn’t dismissed.”

Possession of a firearm by a felon is a Class G felony. If convicted, people can face a minimum sentence of between 9 months to 2 1/2 years, which could be active or probation, Meier said. Those with multiple felony convictions could face a longer sentence.

The charge is a low-level felony, “so if someone is pleading to higher-level felonies, it is often dismissed as part of the plea,” Meier said.

There has also been a trend towards less incarceration and more probation for lower-level cases, “and this certainly seems to bear that out,” Meier said.

In other cases, Welty wrote, weapons charges may be dismissed because they weren’t correctly charged in the first case (prosecutors discover it was an air gun and not a firearm) or if there is problem with the case, such as a gun being found during an unlawful search.

No consequences?

Still, said Meier, the numbers are concerning.

“At least at first blush, it makes it seem like we are not taking firearms seriously,” Meier said. “I think that is one of the big issues. Before you start focusing on new gun laws and everything else, enforce the ones we have.”

Bonfield said he was surprised by the number of dismissals.

”It does seem to me to send a signal that the possession of a firearm by a felon is not that big of deal,” he said. “There is not really consequences.”

The report outlines potential solutions:

Establish a robust Project Safe Neighborhoods, offering the most violent people help through social and other community services.

Significantly increase the number of warrantless probation searches of repeat weapons offenders.

Monitor the outcome of gun cases in court.

Initiate an extensive social media campaign that emphasizes consequences of possessing a firearm, such as incarceration or being the victim of a violent crime.

“Based on interviews conducted for this report, many felons do not have a clear idea of firearm possession consequences, or, know the consequences but carry a firearm any way believing that they have little chance of being arrested or prosecuted,” the report states.

Enforcing current restrictions

The report focuses on the possession of a firearm by a felon charge because research indicates “states can have the most success in reducing gun homicides by enforcing restrictions on who can have access to a gun and by utilizing universal background checks to determine whether a buyer is bound by those restrictions.”

A previous report looking at gun crimes from 2010 to 2015, found a significant amount of gun crimes in Durham involved individuals previously convicted of a felony.

About 46 percent of the 313 people Durham police charged with possession of a firearm by a felon were believed to be in gangs, the report states.

Recent conversations among City Council members have highlighted a divide on how the city should address gun violence. The report, said Bonfield, provides an opportunity for a different conversation.

“I am looking forward to it being presented and hearing what other people’s perspectives are,” he said.

Staff writer Ashad Hajela contributed to this report.

(Z’yon Person’s name was misspelled in previous versions of this article.)

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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.