Without victims and witnesses, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray said Wednesday, “there would be no cases. They are the lynchpins” of the criminal justice system.
So get a load of Norma.
Norma Messer is 74, and she lives in Charlotte. And on Wednesday, with a bunch of her friends watching, Murray gave her one of the 2016 “Above and Beyond” awards from the DA’s office. And when Murray stopped speaking, everybody in the room – not just Messer’s friends – got to their feet and applauded.
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Two years ago, three days after Christmas, Messer had just gotten home from shopping. She opened the French doors to her backyard to let the dogs out. With her back turned for a moment, three figures with ski caps pulled down to hide their faces piled in beside her. She remembers a gun and a knife, and that for the next hour and 15 minutes, all they ever called her was b----.
Take a good long look at Norma Messer. Has anyone ever used that term to describe her before?
She was tied to a chair. A black garbage bag was pulled over her head.
While her assailants berated her, “saying terrible things,” Messer made a pact with herself to remain calm, to respond evenly to the curses and threats splattering against her. She knew somehow that this was the only way she would stay alive.
Then the beatings started. She was cut with glass. A vase was broken over her head. She was pounded with a table. Toward the end, she and the chair were dragged into her bedroom. The TV was removed from its wall-holder. Then it was broken over her head.
Messer had a fractured skull, but she says she never blacked out. She heard one of the attackers say she was dead or soon would be before anybody found her.
Boy, were they wrong.
Her attackers, Murray said, turned out to be three teenagers Messer had known for years, kids that she had tried to nurture, had hired for odd jobs. She even had given them Christmas presents.
So as she recovered and dealt with her feelings of betrayal, Messer made another vow: She would seek justice for herself, and do whatever it took to make it happen.
“I knew I had to do that to regain my life,” she said Wednesday.
First stop: Murray’s office.
“The first thing she said to me was, ‘What are you doing to hold these people accountable, and what can I do to help?’ ” Murray recalled.
She could show up, that’s what. So for more than a year, as the cases of her attackers inched through the juvenile and adult courts, Norma Messer was always there.
She averaged one court hearing a week. Through all those hours in courtrooms or in meetings with Murray’s staff, she bore witness to what had happened to her, replacing the generic tag of victim with a face and a name.
“I’m pretty hard-headed,” she said after the ceremony, as her friends waited to take her out to dinner. “They may have beaten me. But they didn’t break my spirit.”
In the end, Murray’s office got its convictions. Myron Bullock, 20, and Sylessa Ford, 19, pleaded guilty in March to assault and robbery conspiracy charges and will serve at least six years in prison. The punishment for the juvenile remains confidential.
One other thing: Messer says she got her life back. Now she wants to be an advocate helping others use the courts to resurrect their lives, too.
That’s Norma. And that’s why on Wednesday, as Murray hugged her, a roomful of people rose from their seats. And then they stayed there, and applauded her some more.
District Attorney’s Awards Day recipients
Five others were honored Wednesday by Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray and his staff. They are:
Above and Beyond Awards
▪ Christi Milledge, a Carolinas Medical Center emergency room nurse who led prosecutors through 400 pages of medical records, then spent more than two hours on the witness stand to help get a conviction in a savage domestic-abuse case.
▪ CMPD Detective Carl Albanese, who, in returning a purse to a 73-year-old crime victim, saw that she slept on a cot in the sun porch of her un-airconditioned house so two 8-year-olds she had adopted could have the bedrooms. Albanese, along with his father and brother, bought an AC and installed it in the woman’s home.
▪ CMPD Detective Tim Jolly, a veteran homicide investigator who Murray and his prosecutors say works tirelessly to solve cases and bring comfort to grieving families.
Bryan Crocker Awards (for district attorney employees)
▪ Heather Taylor, a victim/witness legal assistant, and her 7-year-old son, Dallas, who opened a small lending library in the front yard of their west Charlotte home.
▪ Assistant District Attorney Gabrielle Kelly, who for the past four years has worked with special needs children ranging from infants to teenagers at Central Church of God.