Michael Hewlett, Winston-Salem Journal, March 22, 2011
If the allegations that Forsyth District Judge Denise Hartsfield fixed traffic tickets and lied to investigators are true, she should be held accountable, some residents said Monday.
But some in the black community said they think Hartsfield, who is black, was targeted by someone and is being railroaded by a criminal-justice system that is unfair to minorities.
The Rev. John Mendez, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church and a local community activist who is black, said he thinks Hartsfield was targeted by someone who wanted to get her in trouble. He said it could have been for political reasons, such as thinking she’s soft on crime. He said he could not rule out race as a motivation because he sees a national climate that is hostile to black politicians, from the White House to judges.
He said he thinks Hartsfield is no more unethical than other district court judges.
“Other judges may be doing it, but nobody leaked it on them,” Mendez said.
Hartsfield is getting strong support from her church, St. Paul United Methodist Church. When the Rev. Donald Jenkins, the church’s pastor, talked Sunday about how proud he is of Hartsfield, church members stood up and clapped.
Jenkins told the congregation that satanic elements must be working against people like Hartsfield who care about others, or they wouldn’t find themselves in a “certain newspaper,” apparently referring to the Winston-Salem Journal.
The Journal reported Friday that the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission filed a statement of charges against Hartsfield on March 1, alleging that she had engaged in a “continuing pattern of conduct in which she entered beneficial judgments for certain defendants.”
The statement cited 22 cases in which Hartsfield is alleged to “have allowed social and other relationships to influence her judicial conduct or judgment,” leading her to fix traffic tickets so that the defendants didn’t pay fines.
She also fixed tickets for defendants added to her docket by court staff, with the understanding that she would enter favorable judgments, according to the statement. She entered the judgments without the defendant, or the defendant’s attorney, appearing in court in cases where that is not allowed, according to the allegations.
Walter Marshall, a Forsyth County commissioner who is black, said Monday that he believes Hartsfield was targeted, though he does not know whether that has anything to do with her race. He thinks other judges do the same things that Hartsfield is accused of doing. He said the entire criminal-justice system is unfair and has punished blacks more harshly than whites.
“We’ve seen white kids commit crimes similar to black kids, but if they’re not of a certain economic status or from a privileged (background), the poor black kids will be prosecuted and the white kids will be released,” he said. “We’re not talking about a fair system down there.”
Others said Monday that if Hartsfield is guilty, she should be held accountable.
“The law is the law is the law,” said Valerie Barnes, who is black. “She has a reasonable amount of intelligence or she wouldn’t have gotten as far as she did.”
Ben Jones, who is black, said black politicians are more scrutinized than others, and Hartsfield should have been aware of that.
He said racial prejudice still exists, but Hartsfield is also considered innocent until proven guilty.
“I wish the truth would come out,” he said. “It would put a lot of things to rest.”