Crime & Courts

He had a chance to get his life back, but he came up $800 short. Is that fair?

A Charlotte man who has become a symbol of how the wheels of justice can turn against the poor now faces trial after a judge on Monday dismissed his argument that he was being discriminated against by prosecutors.

Rahman Bethea was charged in March 2016 with embezzling audio-visual equipment from the uptown Sheraton. Because he was a first-time, nonviolent offender, the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office offered Bethea “deferred prosecution” that would have avoided a trial and led to the dismissal of the charge if Bethea completed the program.

Earlier this year, however, prosecutors withdrew the plea offer after Bethea failed to pay down his restitution in the case to below $1,000. Bethea, who according to court documents lost his job, his home, his car and his son because of the arrest, said he couldn’t afford the $800 needed.

His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Gerber, argued in an earlier hearing that Bethea was being discriminated against because he is poor – part of expanding debate nationally over the economic fairness of the courts. Gerber asked Superior Court Judge Todd Pomeroy to drop the charge.

While Bethea was in court Monday, a group of Charlotte-area ministers demonstrated in front of the courthouse, calling on District Attorney Andrew Murray to make changes to the deferred prosecution program to accommodate low-income defendants. They have adopted the hashtag: #nofeetobefree.

“Being poor should not prevent you from accessing justice or seeking redemption,” said the Rev. Nancy Allison of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice. “Our community should treat every resident fairly and equally.”

Murray told the Observer that his office had not discriminated against Bethea. Instead, prosecutors had tried to balance “victim’s rights vs. providing an opportunity to first-time offenders … to make amends and get their lives in order,” he said.

Earlier, Murray’s office had argued that Bethea had been treated no differently than hundreds of other defendants who had successfully met the requirements of deferred prosecution.

On Monday, Pomeroy agreed – ruling that the prosecution had not discriminated against Bethea. The Lincoln County judge also suggested that if the policies surrounding deferred prosecution deserved re-examination, it would be better if that occurred “outside the courtroom.”

Bethea now faces a trial on the embezzlement charge in early November, though Assistant District Attorney Reed Hunt said Monday that the case could be delayed given the time spent debating Bethea’s motion to have the charges dismissed. Prosecutors could also offer Bethea a new plea agreement, though Murray did not mention that option in his comments after Pomeroy’s ruling.

Gerber said afterward that while she can’t appeal the judge’s decision now, she can challenge it later if her client is convicted. A felony conviction carries lifelong consequences for Bethea and other defendants concerning jobs, housing and education.

Bethea said afterward that he was disappointed in the ruling but pledged to keep fighting for himself and other low-income defendants. He also thanked the community for its support. After reading an Observer story about his situation, several readers offered to help Bethea pay down his restitution to the necessary level.

In a later statement, Murray’s office said he and his prosecutors are “not blind to inequities in the criminal justice system” and remain open to working toward “a fair system for victims and defendants.”

Referring to the ongoing demonstration of ministers a few floors down in front of the courtroom, Murray said Bethea’s case offers Charlotte’s clergy and nonprofit community a chance to set up a financial program to help defendants such as Bethea.

Gerber said those conversations are underway. At the same time, she said the donations already pledged to help Bethea can’t be used unless prosecutors offer Bethea another chance at deferred prosecution.

Asked Monday afternoon about how community donations might influence Bethea’s status, Murray said he couldn’t comment on an active case.

In his earlier comments to the Observer, the district attorney sounded a more pragmatic note: “If you don’t commit a crime, you don’t find yourself in that situation.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS