Dispatches from the North Carolina court system: A family apart

By: - September 14, 2022 12:00 pm

Chatham County Courthouse (Photo courtesy NC Courts)

Chatham County Courthouse (Photo courtesy NC Courts)

This is the first in an ongoing series about goings-on in county courthouses across the state. As a recent North Carolina transplant and the newest member of the Policy Watch team, I am getting to know my new home and beat by traveling to courtrooms to observe routine, everyday hearings and sharing what I learn with readers. Each dispatch will be from a different county. Have a suggestion? Email me at [email protected].

I’ve covered the criminal legal system in four states. Each time I have found the best way to understand issues facing the justice system is to observe the hearings on the daily dockets. For these stories, I’ll be on the ground and in the weeds; the recaps will not necessarily be about policy problems or systemic issues with the justice system. Rather, what is written will be deemed newsworthy because it is a routine occurrence that might surprise those who haven’t been through the system themselves.

C [/dropcap]ases were moving slowly through Courtroom 2A on Monday morning. Several of those whose names were written on a criminal docket pinned to the wall in the lobby grumbled that they had to get a move on. They didn’t want to spend their whole day at the Chatham County Courthouse.

The room got quiet when District Court Judge Samantha Cabe called Garima Sinha’s name.

Sinha took her place beside her public defender, Melissa A. French, and stood in front of a microphone, her back to what would soon become a rapt audience. Sinha had been charged with assault and battery and injury to real property, both misdemeanors, and assault by strangulation, a felony.

Sinha’s elderly mother, the victim in her case, sat in the courtroom’s front row.

Like the people seated behind her, Sinha’s mother was frustrated, but not because she was waiting for her day in court. She didn’t want a court date at all. She just wanted to be heard.

The mother cried and leaned on her cane as she told Judge Cabe she wanted the case dropped. She needs her daughter, the mother told Cabe, because she is sick. Cancer. She doesn’t have anyone else who can care for her except her daughter, who also lives with her.

Cabe told her that the case was out of her hands. She assured the mother that the district attorney’s office knew she wanted the charges dismissed — after all, Cabe said, there was a prosecutor from the D.A.’s office just a few feet from the judge’s bench. But since the police were involved, it’s not Sinha’s mother’s decision on whether the criminal case proceeds. It is the district attorney’s.

Cabe asked French about getting Sinha into Community Resource Court, a rehabilitative program for people with a mental health diagnosis.

Cabe told Sinha to stay away from her mother’s apartment, but did modify the conditions of Sinha’s release on bond. Sinha could talk with her mom via phone or text message.

If Sinha ignores Cabe and visits her mother in person, Sinha could be criminally charged with trespassing.

Sinha’s alleged violent outburst would cost her mother a caretaker.

“Can I hug my daughter?” the mother asked Cabe.

Cabe let them hug in the courtroom. The two women started crying as soon as they embraced.

“I’m so sorry,” the mother said.

“It’s not your fault,” Sinha told her. “You didn’t mean for all of this to happen.”

“You’re such a good girl,” the mother said, sobbing.

The courtroom was still packed with onlookers and people waiting for their case to be called. The television news station that had been there when court started around 10 o’clock had since left.

“I wish the news would report on this,” one woman said, looking for the cameras. “This is going to make me cry.”

Sinha and her mother started to walk out of the courtroom. “Hold on, my feet are numb,” her mother said as she ambled over to her seat.

“I’ll go get my stuff,” the daughter said, walking a few rows back. She sat for a moment and dabbed her eyes with a tissue. The woman who said she wanted the news to report on this suggested Sinha flag down the crew outside. Sinha thanked her and wiped away her tears. She told the woman that her mom didn’t have anyone else.

Sinha’s next court date is Oct. 17. It’s not clear where she went after Monday’s hearing, but wherever it was, it wasn’t home.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.