by Cait Fenhagen, Criminal Justice Resource Director , Orange County Courthouse
I had been working as a public defender for 11 years when JDB walked into my office in Carrboro with his grandmother. While I obviously had no idea that this case would ultimately work its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, I remember being incensed when I learned about the facts and the law enforcement actions that led to the juvenile petition. My experience representing juveniles frequently left me frustrated and angry, but there was something different about this case.
JDB was 13 years old when I met him in 2005. His grandmother was his fierce protector and guardian. She had told the police that they could not speak with her grandson about stolen property. And it was this roadblock that led law enforcement to seek JDB at school and enlist the SRO and assistant principal in their effort to interrogate him. I knew the investigating officer in question and I had concerns about his practices from representing other clients. When JDB talked of being pulled out of class, taken to a room with the three men, questioned with the door closed, told to confess, threatened with detention, all without a parent or guardian being contacted and without being Mirandized, I was convinced that the confession he ultimately gave was unlawfully obtained. There was no question in my mind that he was effectively in custody and in no way felt free to leave the room. The fact that he was a special education student, that his guardian had made it clear he would not speak to the police and his own middle school had facilitated this law enforcement end-run, just made the motion to suppress more necessary.
I wasn’t naïve. I knew motions to suppress, like most zealous advocacy in juvenile court, faced an uphill battle. But, I really thought I might win this suppression motion. Well, of course, I didn’t. And so following the disposition placing him on probation, I appealed the denial of the suppression motion, with the support of JDB and his grandmother. Her indignation fueled my indignation. That day in district court in Hillsborough was the last time I saw JDB and his grandmother.
Then the case took on a new life. One that I only would hear about from time to time and that JDB likely knew little about. I am so grateful for the wonderful appellate advocates who recognized the importance of the constitutional issue and continued to fight for JDB. They lost at the NC Court of Appeals and again at the NC Supreme Court. By the time JDB v. North Carolina was argued in the US Supreme Court in 2011, I was working at the Capital Defender’s office and JDB was an adult and incarcerated. He wasn’t present for the arguments before the highest court in the land, but I could be.
I always wanted to be a public defender. We don’t become public defenders because we think one of our cases will make it to the US Supreme Court and create important new law, we do the work because of the individuals we represent and the harms they can face from law enforcement and the criminal justice system. I failed JDB when I did not win the suppression motion. If his confession had been suppressed, he would not have become another youth in the school-to-prison pipeline. While I am proud that his case ultimately has helped countless others, it’s important to remember that it was too late to help JDB.