Paul Byrd doesn’t know Rahman Bethea. In fact, they have next to nothing in common.
But Byrd has $200 – he says he could stretch it to $300 in a pinch – that he wants Bethea to have.
“I’m no social agitator, I don’t go on no protest marches,” the disabled Vietnam veteran says. “I’m just an average old white man. But I do know that sometimes you need a sense of mercy. At some point, you need to have a sense of compassion that goes beyond the rule of law.”
Byrd is among about 10 Charlotte-area residents who stepped forward Friday to offer help to Bethea, a man they didn’t know until they read about his story in Friday’s Observer.
In 2016, Bethea was charged with embezzlement, an arrest that led to the loss of his job, his child and left him homeless for more than a year.
As a first-time offender of a financial crime, he was offered entry into the “deferred prosecution” program run by the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office. Not only could that help Bethea avoid a trial and a likely felony conviction on his record, the criminal charge would disappear entirely in two years if he successfully completed the program.
But there was a problem: To get deferred prosecution, Bethea is required to pay down any restitution he owes to $1,000 or less. Due to his financial circumstances, he fell $800 short. The district attorney’s office has withdrawn the offer of deferred prosecution. Bethea is scheduled for trial in November.
Glenda Good-Potter, a retired Long Island, N.Y., principal now living in Mint Hill, said Bethea deserves a second chance, and that a little money should not stand between him and a reclaimed life.
“Eight hundred dollars? OK, look, he was wrong. He shouldn’t have done it. But I was a principal for 33 years and I tried to give my kids the benefit of the doubt. I’d tell them, ‘What you did was wrong. Now what are you going to do to fix it?’ ” Good-Potter said.
“I want to pay the $800. That’s not a little money. But it is a little money in return for a man’s future.”
Longtime Charlotte fire inspector Calvin Wright also offered to pay all of what Bethea owes.
“I’m looking at this kid, and he doesn’t look like a typical street criminal. He looks like a clean-cut kid who made a mistake,” Wright said. “I’m not rich. I work for the city. But if $800 can right that mistake and help him realize that there is some good in the world then, hey, so be it.”
Bethea’s plight drew an unusual set of would-be benefactors. There is Donna Mitchell, owner of Miss Donna’s School of Dance. She pledged $100. Harry Petrey of Gastonia, a retired insurance man who sits on the board of nonprofit that tries to keep people out of jail, offered the whole $800.
So did John and Catherine Seta of Cornelius. She’s a psychologist; he’s a retired one. Neither wanted $800 “to stand in the way of having a decent life.” John said.
Bethea’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Gerber, said she has heard from three other possible donors herself on Friday.
“These good intentions are deeply appreciated by Mr. Bethea and myself,” she said. “We’re overwhelmed by the showing of support by our community.”
Whether the pledges will have any impact on Bethea’s case remains to be seen.
During a court hearing Thursday, Gerber accused the district attorney’s office of selectively prosecuting her client by excluding him from the deferred prosecution program and asked that the criminal charge be dismissed.
Assistant District Attorney Reed Hunt said the deferred program helps hundreds of defendants avoid trials and life-debilitating felony convictions, and was not designed to punish people who could not pay the associated costs. Superior Court Judge Todd Pomeroy said he’ll issue a ruling next week.
A spokeswoman for District Attorney Andrew Murray said Friday that Bethea’s case “is proceeding to allow the judge to make a ruling on the merits of the issues at hand. After that ruling, the District Attorney’s Office will reevaluate its position.”
Gerber says negotiations with prosecutors continue, and that she expects a resolution soon.
In the meantime, she said the public defender’s office has other clients in similar economic straits. While public defenders aren’t allowed to collect or hold money for their clients, she’s hoping that Bethea’s story might inspire some community groups to use the pledged contributions to establish a fund to help indigent defendants pay the costs of criminal justice.
Count Byrd in.
“If we live in a society where the lack of $800 can destroy your life, then we’re not much of a society. You can take that Statue of Liberty, throw it out in the Atlantic Ocean and let the Navy use it for target practice,” the Hickory resident said.
“This is not right. Yeah, he’s guilty. He’s guilty as hell. But let him pick up trash. Give him a chance. Get this thing off his back.”