It began as a straight-forward child custody trial. She claimed he abandoned their 3-year-old son. He claimed she withheld the boy from him. But as soon the mother, RiShawna Morrison, stepped down from the witness stand, all hell broke loose in a Durham County courtroom.
"Now I'm gonna choose my words very carefully," said District Court Judge James Hill before issuing his custody order on Aug. 7. "Two parents can come in, act like such idiots—" he paused—"when it's not about the two of you. I could care less about the two of you."
Video of the proceedings captured the fracas that would soon break out.
Hill leaned in. "We don't need to see adults acting like idiots. Did I say the word idiots? It's not about you; it's about [the boy]. What the two of you have done to that little boy is unconscionable. ... Y'all the one that crawled into bed and had sex and made that baby. He didn't ask to be born."
When Hill told RiShawna he had "no doubt" that she had withheld her son from her estranged husband, Collin, she shook her head—a gesture the judge did not appreciate.
"Don't you be looking at me," Hill said.
"I have not withheld him," RiShawna replied.
"You say one more word and you're gonna go to the Durham County bed and breakfast today. You say one more word—"
At this, the judge levied a contempt of court order against RiShawna "for running her mouth when I told her to shut it," he said. "You got 24 hours in the Durham county bed and breakfast."
"I never ran—"
"All right, you got 48 hours."
RiShawna stopped talking. Hill issued a ruling for joint custody.
RiShawna stood up. "Just take me in," she said. "I can't do this. This is a disgrace. What you guys are doing—"
"Seventy-two hours," said Hill.
"You can't just let your son for nine months—"
Moments later, RiShawna was being pinned to a court bench during a three-minute melee involving nine sheriff's deputies. But RiShawna, who received a contempt of court order and 30-day jail sentence, questioned whether Hill treated her fairly.
"It's a scary thing for someone to be in a position of so much power and not really take the time to understand their duties," RiShawna said last week during an interview at the Durham County Detention Center prior to her release on Saturday. She called Hill's behavior "cavalier."
Hill, who has a good reputation among Durham lawyers, said through a court administrator that it would be inappropriate to comment on the ongoing case.
According to Christopher Heagarty, executive director of the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, there has been "a disturbing rise in the number of outbursts, protests and threats being made against judges, and these have to be taken very seriously."
During the three-day trial, both parents testified about the unraveling of their five-year marriage last November. RiShawna, then a patient representative for UNC-Chapel Hill's Campus Health Services, separated from Collin, a 33-year-old care coordinator for Alliance Behavioral Health, after discovering on his cellphone nude photos and texts from an alleged mistress, she claims.
Two weeks later, RiShawna claims that Collin put her in a headlock, dragged her around the house and shoved her head to his crotch. Collin was charged by Durham police with assault on a female. (That trial is scheduled for the end of the month.) He filed his own protection order, alleging his wife harassed him, and that she bit him and scratched his face during the altercation.
After the incident, RiShawna, who is also enrolled in a part-time graduate program at North Carolina Central University, moved with the child to her parents' home in Winston-Salem. She took a family medical leave from UNC and filed a child support claim. Collin responded with a counterclaim for permanent custody and child support. A series of trial delays postponed the case for several months, and RiShawna was fired from her UNC job.
In February, Judge Hill awarded the Morrisons temporary joint custody pending the assault charge, and gave primary temporary custody to RiShawna. In the months that followed, says RiShawna, Collin visited their son just once and paid a pittance in child support. Collin did not respond to messages seeking comment, but he alleged in court documents that RiShawna prevented him from seeing his son, a contention she denies.
As Hill ordered RiShawna removed from the courtroom last month, she continued yelling. A deputy tried to control her from behind, but she resisted.
"I take care of my baby consistently and I get punished because he chooses to be in his son's life whenever he feels like it?" cried RiShawna, who wore a dress and heels, and is listed in court documents as 5-feet, 3-inches tall and 140 pounds. "What kind of justice is that? That I'm going to jail for being a good mother?"
The deputy pinned RiShawna against a court bench and tried to handcuff her. Hill stared toward the wall, chin in hand. RiShawna's older brother, Sherrod Smith, approached his sister in attempt to calm her down. "You don't got to throw her around," Smith told the deputy.
Another deputy entered the scrum and RiShawna fell down. The original deputy grabbed Smith's neck in a brief headlock. Smith slipped it, and the deputy stumbled to the floor. He picked himself up and pointed what appeared to be a Taser at Smith. Two more deputies entered the room. Judge Hill left the courtroom through a door behind his seat.
One of the deputies cuffed RiShawna and whipped her onto the bench, causing her leg to swing over the railing. She tried to stand, but he shoved her back down. Five more deputies stormed the room.
"Get up!" one shouted at RiShawna. "Stop yelling at me!" she yelled back. The deputy bulldozed her into a table, causing papers to spill.
"Why?" RiShawna wailed off-camera. "Why did it go wrong?"
"You should have videoed this," said RiShawna's mother to no one in particular as deputies escorted her out of the courtroom. (She and Smith each spent 48 hours in jail. They are charged, respectively, with resisting a public officer, and resisting a public officer and assault on a government official.)
Hill reentered the courtroom and proceeded with his ruling. He allowed Collin full custody of the boy during RiShawna's 30-day sentence. "Actions have consequences," he said.
Heagarty, of the Judicial Standards Commission, said judges are expected to maintain courtroom decorum and show patience. "Yet," he added, "even when a citizen may have a valid grievance against a judge's actions or rulings, violence in the court room cannot be justified, period."
During her jail interview, RiShawna, who has missed the start of her semester at N.C. Central and still bears cuts and bruises from the courtroom fracas, noted the irony of being temporarily cut off from the child she is fighting to care for permanently.
"Before the trial, I dropped him off with my friend and told him I had a meeting," she said. "And I haven't seen him in the 26 days since. I have no idea of the lasting effect this will have on him. I have no idea if every time I walk out of a door he'll wonder if I'm leaving him forever."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Courtroom chaos."