A room transformed by bright colors and creative collaboration now offers a protective enclave in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse to children who need it most.
A little boy’s name near the doorway speaks to the terrors that lurk outside.
Ellijah Burger is buried in a West Virginia cemetery where when it rains, the letters on his grave marker often disappear under pooling water and rivulets of mud.
Ellijah also appears prominently in the new room in the courthouse reserved for child victims and witnesses. It opened this month as a shared effort between the District Attorney’s Office, a local nonprofit and a group of Charlotte artists.
Here, Ellijah’s marker takes the shape of small heart, his name spelled out in the middle, painted as if the figure and letters have been carved into a tree. Each wall in the 10-by-10 room serves as a canvas for a sunlit landscape of flowers, rolling hillsides and smiling little homes – all cast in colors that look like a crayon river had washed on through.
Last year, in a fifth-floor courtroom only a few feet away, Ellijah’s father was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2008 torture and beating death of the 23-month child. Ellijah’s crime: He didn’t finish his soup.
Over the course of two days, the boy’s sister Lanaeziah, then 6, hid in the hotel room and watched as Andre Hampton beat Ellijah with everything from a belt to a toothbrush. Even now, when prosecutors and child advocates talk about the little boy’s suffering, how he tried to crawl away from his father’s attacks, they often start to cry.
“I don’t think any of us had ever seen so pervasive a beating,” says Assistant District Attorney Bill Stetzer, the lead prosecutor in Hampton’s conviction. “A child’s case is already hard. The victims are so innocent. This was just so heartbreaking. All of us lost a little innocence during that trial.”
Five years after her brother’s death, Lanaeziah spent days in what was then a sterile, fifth-floor witness room waiting to testify against her father.
The state requires the county to offer a secure suite of rooms where witnesses can be interviewed or await summons to the courtroom.
But after the Hampton case, the husband-and-wife prosecutors, Bill and Kelly Stetzer, decided there had to be something better for the often traumatized children thrust into the courts. Perhaps a reworked room would add four walls of temporary comfort to ease a child’s legal ordeal. Maybe it would even inject some innocence into a government building synonymous with a threatening adult world.
The Stetzers called Pat’s Place, a Charlotte nonprofit that often provides help to young victims and witnesses as they move through their trials. One of the group’s volunteers happened to be a contributing artist at Ciel Gallery in SouthEnd.
At first, the gallery’s artists planned only to paint a window on one side of the witness room. But then they sat where Lanaeziah Burger had waited.
“It was a blank, very small room, very, very plain, with no windows. All they had was a TV and a couple of Barbies,” recalls Laura McRae-Hitchcock, one of Ciel’s partners.
“As we sat there, we realized a window wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t change the feel. And so we decided, ‘Why don’t we paint the whole thing?’ ”
Pat’s Place set aside $350 to cover paint, a bookshelf and some toys. Donations of books, movies, whatever extras the room needed, started pouring in – from the DA’s office, the courthouse and the gallery.
McRae-Hitchcock, Ciel consignment artist Flavia Lovatelli and the Stetzers came up with a mural design that soon buried the government-issue wall colors most commonly found on hotel soap. Soon, and lasting for almost a month, the artists were donating 10 hours a week to bring the room to life.
On the first day of painting, McRae-Hitchcock says people from all over the courthouse stopped by to watch. Someone asked whether Ellijah’s name could become part of the landscape. She was surprised to find that many of the visitors were tearing up.
“They were all so very much affected. That’s when ‘the Big Wow’ hit me, that maybe this was a lot bigger than I realized,” McRae-Hitchcock says.
“We just decided to make a room that was as full of love and peace as we could. That all the joy we feel when we’re painting, maybe this room could hold that, so these children would not be afraid.”
Now, where there is often despair, there is also some light. After the room opened, the first client to use it was a 12-year-old victim of sexual abuse. As she waited, she drew and doodled on the donated chalkboard table.
Many of the prosecutors can think of children they wish could have had the chance to play with the room’s new toys or picture themselves living in the happy homes depicted in the mural.
Bill Bunting, who helped try the Hampton case, talks about a 9-year-old who last month testified against the man who had shot down his father in front of him.
Kelly Stetzer, an assistant district attorney who, with colleague Donna Price, specializes in sex-abuse cases involving children, recalls the 7-year-old girl whose attacker brought a camera along during his repeated assaults and tried to trade the photographs online.
And there’s Lanaeziah, whom Bill Stetzer and Bunting visited in West Virginia several months ago and who appears to be doing well.
Based on recent headlines, new clients are lining up. At any given time the District Attorney’s Office handles more than 100 cases involving child victims.
“This room will be put to good use,” Kelly Stetzer says. “As prosecutors, we see the worst of the worst on a daily basis. It was so refreshing to be reminded that there are wonderful folks in this community who want to make a difference in the lives of these children.
“What a gift we have been given.”
Last week, she and Anne Pfeiffer of Pat’s Place, along with most of the participating artists, met on the fifth floor of the courthouse to take some photographs. There was laughter and reminiscing as the group mingled beforehand near the doorway of the new room.
When the subject turned to Ellijah, though, the conversation slowed. Here, just outside a small world teeming with hope and reassurance, there was the sudden reminder of the suffering and loss from which that world had been born.
The photographs had to wait. Everyone was crying.