When I met Shamieka Rhinehart at the original Cocoa Cinnamon Labor Day morning, I didn’t know what to expect. I had read her website and she’d been recommended to me as “different” and “someone you should talk to”. Rhinehart is running for District Court Judge in Durham. She has served eleven years in the Durham County District Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor. She looked effervescent for someone who has been campaigning for a year, while grinding away at her job from 8.00AM till 5.00 PM, and beyond, in the Durham County Justice Center.
Forty-five minutes later, as she reiterated to me that she was a “public servant, not a politician” that she was about individuals and outcomes, not numbers, I told her she didn’t have to, that it was implicit in so much she’d already said.
Working in the Prosecutor’s Office in a place like Durham, NC is public service. In some ways, this is life come full circle for Shamieka Rhinehart, who as a two year-old, nicknamed Mickey, was playfully threatened by her Uncle, who said he’d ‘murder’ her for mucking with his law school notes. Her Uncle would go on to be Judge Robert Evans, a District Court Judge appointed by then Governor Jim Hunt. He has been serving as District Attorney of Edgecombe, Nash, and Wilson Counties since 2009.
Judge Evans now is a locally beloved lawyer and statesmen. First however, he was a young boy who left Philadelphia with his Mother (Rhinehart’s Grandmother). She came south as her urban neighborhood in Philly deteriorated with crime and blight. Young Robert Evans went to Rocky Mount Senior High, and from there on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
For young Shamieka, aka Mickey, he was just her Uncle, the lawyer, as she grew up in Rocky Mount. She was an adult before he was a renown public servant. Shamieka was born under trying circumstances for her parents, she lived with her Grandmother on the “other” side of the tracks. Young Rhinehart worked in a grocery store called “White’s” just a five minute walk down the road from her grandmother’s house in Rocky Mount. She got her work permit at fifteen. She lived in the sort of small town where her grandmother’s friends would call out to her from their porches and as she walked to work, and if she didn’t reply with the Southern gentile politeness appropriate for child speaking to an elder or didn’t reply at all, word would get back to her Grandmother. All this shaped her.
Her Grandmother, Ms. Cleo, passed in 2012. Rhinehart speaks of her with what is clearly deep affection. Ms. Cleo worked as the lead cook in the local hospital for years. Rhinehart says they were working poor. She recalls that by high school their Rocky Mount neighborhood was getting rougher and more dilapidated. When she was accepted to the University of North Carolina, her father took great pride in driving Rhinehart to Chapel Hill, strapping down carefully and meticulously her worldly possessions in his pick-up truck. It was a new era in her life, but also a continuation. She recalls living the on food stamps that her mother would give her to go away to college; blue, green, beige. To further help support herself, Rhinehart worked at Lenoir Dining Hall while she was an undergrad.
She said during our conversation last week that working at Lenoir helped give her a deeper perspective on humanity. Her co-workers there included individuals from the homeless shelter, and work release inmates, among other societal chattel, these folks frequently were bussed into Lenoir to work and then bussed away again. Rhinehart saw them as people. This perspective on humanity as individual stories has never left her.
She says a good prosecutor knows the law, but a better prosecutor, not only knows the law, but how to “humanize” justice. Rhinehart said, “Justice is a collaborative effort.” She told me how not many people realize it, but a prosecutor’s goal is not to convict. Rather according to the State of North Carolina, prosecutors are Ministers of Justice, beholden to uphold what they believe is just.
Rhinehart noted, she can “put someone away when she has to.” She understands the duty to uphold the law. But frequently Rhinehart starts her prosecutions by saying to the defense attorney, “Tell me about your client.” She says a good prosecutor wants to understand why the defendant is in front of them. She says strictly focusing on numbers (I assume she means like conviction percentage.) misses the individual lives and impacts on families. Rhinehart wants to think and react to things like, what would the impact be on a family if the father is taken out of the community, imprisoned.
She wants to be careful about setting people up for failure. She wants to be conscious of issues like housing and schooling. It makes sense then that Rhinehart volunteers in the community, talking to teenage girls on behalf of Partners for Youth in Durham’s West End, and doing things like speaking to the kids at Neal Middle School. It is not just for form’s sake.
She is beholden to humility.
It would have been easy for Rhinehart to leave the Durham Prosecutor’s Office. The District Attorney who hired her and her next supervisor left under disgrace and amidst controversy, respectively. Yet, rather than let their issues be her issues, Rhinehart kept working for the people of Durham. She went above and beyond the daily duties, volunteering to be the liaison to Court Watch in District 3, as well as volunteering in the collective effort to establish a Durham Misdemeanor Court where youthful and first time offenders can avoid felonies which can have disastrous consequences on future employment, housing, and education.
But don’t just take my word on it: as an attorney Shamieka Rhinehart received a 4.39 out of 5 for integrity and impartiality from her peers in the state bar. And much higher scores than her opponent generally. She personally believes compassion is about forgiveness. The Defense Attorneys I spoke to about Rhinehart, ostensibly her opponents, say things like, “she’s great”, “impartial”, and “fair”.
Long time Durham attorney Jay Ferguson said, “[she—Rhinehart] possesses a keen and natural sense of fairness. She has sound judgment, great common sense and the ability to understand people such that she knows when the case calls for toughness and when to be compassionate. She will be a great addition to the District Court bench in Durham.”
Rhinehart supports focusing on mental health initiatives that divert people from the jail. She believes that our criminal justice system must do better to not incarcerate the mentally ill, but to provide solutions that include treatment, life-skills training, and housing. We need to divert people from the Criminal Justice system to the mental health care system, where their needs and the needs of the community are better served. (From my limited vista this is something Durham, and our overcrowded jails, definitely need…)
Rhinehart is a double-minority in PC speak as an African-American female. She is running against an establishment candidate in Judge Drew Marsh. Marsh’s father was a famous Civil Rights attorney in this area. He is fifty-seven years-old. There is a whispered undercurrent in the community that as a forty-one year-old woman who has “only” been a prosecutor, maybe she needs to wait her turn.
I don’t subscribe to that point of view.
Rhinehart gives off a palpable sense of beyond partisan politics. In our interview, she said she could “never” see herself running for a partisan political office. Her service is rooted in a sense of duty to one’s community, not self-aggrandizement. She told me a story that epitomized that reality.
Once upon a time Durham felt the need to build a massive, new, skyline defining public courthouse building. Rhinehart as a long time public servant in the Durham Prosecutor’s Office was given an eighth floor office in that grand, shiny building. This office had great windows with a view overlooking Southside and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The only problem, Rhinehart didn’t feel this office was commensurate with her role as a public servant. So she gave it up. Voluntarily.
Her office is now down on the fourth floor with a view of the back side of the jail. She works just down the hall from the Public Defender’s Office. Rhinehart tells me this is a great spot for a public servant. Two or three times a week, someone wanders in looking for the Public Defender. Rhinehart is able to steer them in the right direction, sometimes both literally and socially. Her office is unsecured. Her door unlocked. Other attorneys, probation officers, and various public servants, as well as, the public can find her, if they are looking.
This sounds like the kind of person we want to be a judge in Durham. After sitting and speaking with her for an hour I believe her campaign slogan is quite real,
“A servant for the People.”