On the hot seat: opinions split about District Court Judge O’Berry

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Reviews of current Chesterfield/Colonial Heights District Court Judge Pamela O’Berry were split when two committees from the state House and Senate met virtually on Friday, Dec. 11.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke) said he had “never seen so many citizens in support and so many with a different position” about a judge.

O’Berry, who has served 12 years on the court, is one of five judges on the 12th Judicial District.

Positive opinions of the judge came from several well-known officials, including county supervisors James Holland (D) and Chris Winslow (R), state Del. Dolores McQuinn (D-Richmond) and former Del. Manouli Loupassi (R-Richmond).

However, Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond), who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee that interviewed candidates along with the House Courts of Justice Committee, questioned O’Berry several times. In addition, former House candidate Tavorise Marks (D) spoke against O’Berry, as did Denisha Potts, a former vice president of the Chesterfield NAACP.

During his questioning, Morrissey noted that the executive committee of the county chapter of the NAACP wrote a letter against O’Berry’s reappointment by the General Assembly next year.

Morrissey also noted that O’Berry’s recent judicial performance evaluation ranked her 47th out of 47 judges.

Morrissey asked Holland if he had seen the letter the county NAACP wrote. Holland said he had heard of it, but said, “I reject their opinion. I could tell you stories about the Chesterfield NAACP you probably wouldn’t even want to know.” Holland said he would “have to decline my membership the way they’ve behaved the last few years,” referring to a split in the organization that occurred in late 2018.

Marks, who chairs the organization’s standing committees, said he was disappointed and surprised to hear Holland’s remarks, noting that he was a guest of honor at a county NAACP meeting earlier this year.

“I beg you to not reappoint Judge O’Berry,” Marks said, noting he was speaking on behalf of numerous attorneys who were not on the call because they feared retribution. Marks said O’Berry had denied bail or imposed excessive bail for such things as marijuana-related charges, trespassing, fighting and drug use, and added that people lost jobs because of it.

Marty Jewell, a former Richmond councilman, also spoke against O’Berry. “I’ve never seen such dismissive behavior in my life,” he said, adding that O’Berry has mistreated defendants, attorneys and her own staff. “This is consistent, particularly the way she treats African-Americans in her courtroom,” Jewell said, adding that O’Berry has a “total disregard for federal law, which supersedes state law.”

Kandise Lucas, who described herself as an advocate for students with special needs, said she accompanied a parent to Meadowbrook High School in July of 2015, only to have the police called on her. This “systemic racist practice” resulted in her arrest, Lucas said, adding that O’Berry accepted an Alford plea on Lucas’ behalf that Lucas didn’t agree to. (An Alford plea is when a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence for a conviction.) Lucas said O’Berry gave her a one-year suspended jail sentence and ordered that she be banned from Chesterfield County Public Schools. Lucas said former Judge T.J. Hauler overturned O’Berry’s ruling. “I came to Delegate McQuinn, and she never responded to me,” Lucas said.

Community activist Christopher Rashad Green said he’s rarely seen a black person given bond in O’Berry’s court.

Morrissey said he has appeared in O’Berry’s courtroom many times, and noted that she’s treated him fairly. However, Morrissey added that he’s received over 100 letters from the public complaining about her. Morrissey also said he received 35 complaints from attorneys who were afraid to come forward at the hearing.

Morrissey cited a letter from a former deputy court clerk who served from 2016-18 and described O’Berry as “very rude” and “condescending to people.”

In response, O’Berry said the former employee “left our office very soon after she was disciplined because she made a grievous error” by evicting a family before they had come before her court. “A family came within hours of being evicted,” O’Berry said.

In speaking in favor of the judge, McQuinn called her “very humble” and said she “tempers justice with mercy,” noting she handles thousands of cases a year. “This is the first year I’ve heard of any complaints against her.”

McQuinn said that she didn’t start to hear “rumblings against O’Berry” until she was one of 17 candidates, and one of only two black persons, to be considered for an open circuit court judge seat left vacant when Hauler retired Dec. 31, 2019.

Holland said he’s known O’Berry for over 10 years and described her as a “loyal and dedicated professional … I’ve found her to be trustworthy.”

Under questioning, O’Berry said she is “strong in hard skills and weak in soft skills. I need to better give the appearance of attentiveness,” she added. “You don’t learn soft skills in law school.”

Loupassi said that, in 2008, “We were kind of scared of putting her on the bench because we thought she’d be weak [on enforcing the law]. She got complaints for being really hard.”

Before O’Berry was reappointed in 2014, “I had a long conversation with her and said, ‘There’s a lot of problems with how you’re doing.’ She was shocked and looked like she was going to start crying. She has really worked hard the last five years,” Loupassi said, noting that he is an attorney. “The first six years were brutal, but she’s worked really hard. Her evaluations are not good, but it takes a while to get back to normal.”

Loupassi noted that O’Berry “comes from very humble beginnings. She grew up in housing projects. She’s completely self-made.” He said she got a college scholarship and is “a reflection of the American dream. She deserves your mercy.”

Speaking on behalf of the state NAACP, Karen Jones said, “We reaffirm our support of [O’Berry].”

Richmond attorney Aubrey Bowles said O’Berry had “growing pains” but “I’ve seen nothing but terrific judgment” from her.

Chesterfield attorney Frank Laruffa said O’Berry “has grown tremendously. She’s absolutely fair.”

Erica Battle, a defense attorney who also is a deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Surry, spoke in favor of O’Berry and said, “I don’t have many role models who look like myself.”

Del. Michael Mullin (D-Newport News), a member of the House Courts of Justice Committee, said the decision regarding judges “should be made by the localities … we are making a recommendation of fitness for office” for O’Berry.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, Morrissey declined to say how he would vote on O’Berry but said, “The record speaks for itself.” He noted that the majority of those who testified on Dec. 11 are “citizens and attorneys who get court-appointed work” from O’Berry.

Morrissey added Chesterfield County needs a public defender’s office instead of the current situation where judges appoint attorneys to represent defendants.

“For far too long, a small select group of attorneys have been getting the lion’s share of court-appointed work. That’s going to change,” he said, noting that legislation will be filed to that effect in January.

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