Courthouse concerns addressed

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 22, 2008

JACKSON – Security issues, the need for new technology and the battle with bats are among the concerns of Northampton County court officials when it comes to the Northampton County Courthouse.

On Thursday, judges, attorneys and other officials alike gathered to speak of their experiences in 150 year old courthouse with members of the Rural Courts Commission.

The commission is visiting different courthouses around the state, where they have been collecting data on the conditions of the structures and the needs of judicial officials. Northampton County was the 26th stop on the commission’s tour.

“We have been a lot of places,” said Commission member and Superior Court Judge Kimberly S. Taylor of District 22.

One of the top topics for concern among court officials was security.

District 6B Resident Superior Court Judge Cy Grant noted a 2006 shooting incident that occurred in the courthouse, which an inmate was able to grab a Department of Corrections (DOC) officer’s gun and opened fire, injuring the officer. The inmate was killed by a Northampton County Sheriff’s Deputy.

Grant also noted security concerns for the parking lot as well as District Attorney Valerie Asbell’s office.

Chief District 6B Court Judge Alfred W. Kwasikpui echoed Grant’s distress and mentioned how everyone in the courthouse population utilizes common areas—like restrooms.

“I might put someone on probation and I walk out and go to the bathroom—that person may be in the bathroom,” said Kwasikpui.

Kwasikpui continued that though there is only one door you can go through, a person has free roam of the facility.

“There are no means of escape,” he said.

Northampton County Sheriff Wardie Vincent also addressed security in his time with the commission.

Vincent noted the smaller courtroom, located next to the courthouse, in which the holding cell is directly behind the commissioners’ room.

He also spoke about the fact that defendants are escorted across the street to the courthouse and how difficult it is to separate inmates from the general population in the courthouse.

The ability and resources in order to search those who come into the courtroom were also discussed by Vincent.

“We need to look at getting a scanner or metal detector in place,” he said.

In her report to the commission, District 6B Attorney Asbell shared her experience of the 2006 shooting incident and the lack of a way out of the building and emergency plan.

“There was no escape route when it happened,” she said. “No one knew what to do.”

Asbell also noted how her back is to the general population as they come in and out of the courtroom and how there is no checking for weapons.

She also spoke about how one of the holding cells is near the jury room and how there is a need for a secured area for domestic violence victims.

Clerk of Superior Court Michelle Spruill also echoed the opinions of those who spoke before her.

“It’s almost as if I am a sitting duck because of the lack of security here,” she said. “Yes, I do have concern about open spaces.”

Spruill said her office has been broken into twice and her staff is cautious as to what doors to keep locked.

The health of employees was also at the forefront of the officials concerns in connection with infestations of bats and insects in the courthouse.

“I keep a can of bug spray in my office,” said Judge Kwasikpui.

Kwasikpui said wasps have entered his office and the Guardian ad Litem office through the light fixtures.

Bats have also entered the building. Spruill spoke on this topic as well, noting the deterioration of the environment because of leakage, mildew, mold, bat feces and urine.

“Sometimes I wonder what we’re breathing,” she said.

The need for the latest technology was also addressed.

“There is no way to hook up my computer (in the courtroom) without a lot of cords,” said Asbell. She recalled how one time a defense attorney had to use her computer to complete their closing argument in a capital case.

Among the suggestions to cure the courthouse of its aliments, Spruill suggested a new facility altogether.

She said the plot of land across from the Hess Station on US 158 would be an ideal place and would solve the current parking problems.

“I think the citizens of Northampton County would be well served,” she said.