Cops complain about judge for respecting peoples' rights

The judging of Nancy Norelli
The district judge was briefly reassigned from the criminal bench after police complained about her rulings. What does her record show?

Nancy Norelli isn't the toughest judge in Charlotte. And she's not the most lenient.

The 57-year-old district judge, recently criticized by police for acquitting suspects and throwing out cases, convicts more than half of the defendants who go to trial in her courtroom.

Her 56 percent conviction rate is virtually the same as the average for Mecklenburg's 12 most active district court judges, according to an Observer analysis. The newspaper looked at trial dispositions of more than 7,300 misdemeanor and traffic charges during the past five years.

On Friday, in her first interview since the controversy, she said she knows the law and follows it.

"I don't keep score. I do what I think is right," she said. "I am an ordinary person who takes a serious oath very seriously. ... Fairness is a cornerstone of my work in the district court."

Police criticism of her rulings is largely rooted in another area: cases dismissed without a verdict of guilt or innocence. Those cases represented just 3.1 percent of her overall caseload. And yet that dismissal rate is nearly twice the average of the 12 judges.

The most frequent police criticisms centered on her dismissals and acquittals in drug and gun charges. While those represented a sliver of her caseload, police take gun cases especially seriously because of the dangers those suspects could pose to the community and to officers.

Norelli, appointed to the bench in 2000, found herself at the center of a firestorm last month after Mecklenburg Chief District Judge Fritz Mercer told the Observer that police complaints about her rulings played a role in his decision to remove her from criminal court and reassign her to family court.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police leaders took the unusual step of complaining about Norelli to the chief judge. Their complaints centered on cases in which they said she incorrectly interpreted laws dictating when police can stop and search suspects.

Defense lawyers sharply criticized Mercer's decision to move Norelli, saying he succumbed to police pressure. And they defended her knowledge of the law.

Within a week of the Observer's story, Mercer, also under pressure from his fellow judges, wrote a memo saying he was moving her back to criminal court. He offered to resign as chief judge, but the state's chief justice decided he would remain in that role.

Norelli resumed hearing criminal cases earlier this month.

Interviews with members of Mecklenburg's legal community who have spent time in Norelli's court yield two very different views of how well she applies the law and runs her courtroom.

Some were critical of her rulings, but none of them agreed to be named in light of the uproar created by her reassignment. It's rare for anyone in the legal community to openly criticize a judge.

Some critics cited not only her rulings, but her style in the courtroom.

She has made defendants apologize to officers and prosecutors. She has asked them to approach the bench so she can look them in the eye and personally offer encouragement. She has even come down from the bench and hugged a defendant.

But defense lawyers who regularly try cases before her told the Observer her style is part of what makes her an exceptional judge. They laud her for trying to influence defendants to change their behavior.

"I think of all the judges, she understands the role of the judge in society as not only the punisher but as somebody who nurtures and uses court as a constructive experience for someone to change their behavior and life," said Jason St. Aubin, an assistant public defender assigned to Norelli's courtroom.

"I believe she is genuinely interested in the defendants and if they show respect to the court system and a willingness to change, she shows a willingness to help them."

Inspired by a purpose

Norelli, during an interview at her home Friday, said she became a district court judge because she wanted to help people who need it."It's an incredibly important court," she said. "It's the people's court. It's the people for whom we should all have a lot of hope for."

Norelli, who spent most of her career as a civil lawyer, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993. Three years later, she read a newspaper article about Judge Daphene Cantrell's career on the bench.

The story, she said, inspired her to run for office.

"If I get to live," she recalled thinking, "my life ought to have some purpose."

She ran for an open seat in 1996 and lost. Four years later, she was appointed to fill an unexpired term. She spent about a month preparing for the bench, researching criminal case law and spending time in other judges' courtrooms.

Norelli said she tries to reach the people who come before her. That's why she asks them to write letters of apology, offers encouragement to those who admit their drug addictions, and praises defendants who have jobs.

"I try to get them to listen when I can and get them to understand the consequences of their actions," she said. "I want them to get the message and never commit a crime again."

Formal police complaints

It's not unusual for police to complain about judges or disagree with their decisions. But rarely do they make their complaints so formal.

After hearing complaints from officers, Maj. David Graham, now a deputy chief, began gathering information about Norelli in late 2005. On Jan. 4, 2006, he sent an e-mail to officers assigned to her courtroom asking for examples in which officers believe Norelli ruled incorrectly on cases involving searches, seizures and probable cause.

District court judges often have to rule on the legality of traffic stops, searches and seizures of evidence -- and such rulings often prove pivotal in cases involving drugs or concealed weapons. If the judge finds the police lacked legal grounds for the stop or search, the evidence is thrown out. The charges are then often dismissed.

Nine officers e-mailed Graham with concerns focused mostly on drug and gun cases.

Officer Jeff Wheaton was upset about a gun case Norelli heard in June 2005.

Wheaton said he was driving through a gas station parking lot when he saw a man walking away nervously. The officer said he and another patrolman approached without using lights or sirens and asked the man to speak to them. He agreed.

The officers asked the man whether they could search him. Then, Wheaton said, the man began to run away and threw a gun down. The officers chased him, confiscated the gun and charged him with carrying a concealed weapon.

Norelli dismissed the case.

"I have seen many of my cases as well as many other officers' cases dismissed by Judge Norelli," Wheaton wrote in an e-mail the Observer obtained through a public records request. "I have discussed these cases with the ADA (assistant district attorney) ... and they too have agreed that the case was dismissed based on Norelli's lack of understanding of law. I also have had instances where defense attorneys expressed their own opinion that Norelli wrongly dismissed cases.

"I take great pride in my career and the work that I do with CMPD and am tired of seeing all of these efforts wasted away."

Officer Henry Rozell e-mailed Graham saying officers' safety is at stake. He complained about a dismissed gun charge involving a teenager he chased and wrestled to the ground.

"She has very little knowledge of the law and if she actually does have the knowledge, then she is choosing not to uphold the law," Rozell wrote in his e-mail. "I am mostly disturbed about this case because it is an impact on the officer's safety and tells the defendant that his actions were OK. ... This has to stop before an officer gets hurt."

Aside from the officers' own accounts, it is difficult to reconstruct the facts of the cases, or what was said to the judge. Transcripts are not normally kept in district court.

Norelli would not talk about the cases cited in police e-mails but described the police who complained as "mostly young, frustrated, disgruntled officers."

"I know it's hard for these officers," she said. "The defendants may be well-known to them, their criminal history, prior actions and demeanor." But a judge must begin with the presumption of innocence, she said.

That, she believes, may be at the heart of some of the officers' concerns. But she added: "The presumption of innocence has got to be the cornerstone of our justice system."

Graham and a police attorney met with prosecutors in 2006 to discuss their concerns about the judge. A police attorney then met with Chief Judge Mercer.

Mercer later informed Norelli he was moving her out of criminal court beginning in April. Mercer didn't tell Norelli about the police complaints.

Assistant District Attorney Bruce Lillie, who heads the team that prosecutes district court cases, told the Observer last month he had heard a lot of complaints from officers about Norelli. He said prosecutors were frustrated with some of her rulings.

Lillie said he helped prosecutors prepare to address the judge if they felt she was ruling contrary to law. But Lillie said his office did not go to Mercer with concerns.

Defense attorney St. Aubin said it's important to remember that Norelli's duty goes beyond punishing criminals.

"It's not just the judge's role to make sure guilty are punished," he said, "but also to make sure the innocent are acquitted and people's constitutional rights are being protected."

Judge's behavior can surprise

At times, Norelli's behavior in court has raised eyebrows.Her first Halloween on the bench, Norelli entered her courtroom wearing her black robe and a witch's hat. Moments later, she learned that the first defendant to appear before her might have issues of mental competency.

She immediately took off the hat and tossed it under the bench.

"That particular defendant certainly did not need to see a witch on the bench," she said. "I learned that day that humor can be very chancy in the courtroom.

"I still use humor occasionally but with great care."

Norelli also once hugged a defendant who had just pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana.

The young woman had no prior record and had been unable to bond out of jail. She was dressed in an orange jail uniform and had no hair, the judge recalled Friday. She said she learned the woman was a breast cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy.

Norelli came down from the bench.

"Instinct took over," the judge recalled. "I held her hands and I said, `I'm a breast cancer survivor and I hope you will be, too. And your hair will grow back.'

"She smiled and hugged me."

Norelli said she knows some disagreed with what she did, but she says she would do the same thing again.

Norelli doesn't like defendants to appear in her courtroom dressed inappropriately. She sometimes offers a defendant a jacket from a back room to cover themselves up.

"She doesn't like to see belly-buttons on women or armpits on men," said Assistant Public Defender Tracy Hewett, who for the past three years was assigned to Norelli's courtroom. "That wardrobe is not appropriate for court."

She says complaints hurt her

Norelli said she was caught off guard by the police complaints. She also was hurt. The judge said she not only didn't know police figured in her reassignment but she also didn't realize officers were questioning her application of the law.

Norelli told the Observer the only time she has been confronted about her decision-making was after she began taking car keys away from people repeatedly convicted for driving with a revoked license.

A judge and a defense lawyer went to her office separately to inform her it was unconstitutional for her to confiscate keys.

"Of course, I immediately stopped the practice," she said. "I still ask if the defendant is carrying car keys. I request that they remove the car key from their personal key ring and suggest that they keep it locked up until they have a driver's license."

Despite all the controversy surrounding Norelli and the chief judge's removal of her from criminal court, defense lawyers praise Norelli for her willingness to listen to all sides in trying to reach a just verdict.

Said defense attorney James Gronquist: "Does she make mistakes? Of course she does. Every judge makes mistakes. But Judge Norelli tries to follow the law and do what she thinks is right."

Defense attorney George Laughrun doesn't think Norelli favors one side or the other.

"Lawyers interpret the law differently," he said. "Prosecutors say it's one thing. Defense lawyers say it's another.

"The judge is the umpire. Judge Norelli calls them like she sees them."

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