Crime & Courts

Durham judge doubts payback plan for Duke embezzler

Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson listens as defense attorney Whitney Williams explains how defendant Sondra James will repay $43,000 she embezzled from Duke hospital during her sentencing hearing Friday, May 6, 2016 in Durham, N.C.
Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson listens as defense attorney Whitney Williams explains how defendant Sondra James will repay $43,000 she embezzled from Duke hospital during her sentencing hearing Friday, May 6, 2016 in Durham, N.C. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Outside a Durham County Superior Court room, a prosecutor and defense attorney worked out a plea arrangement for a woman who was about to admit she had embezzled more than $43,000 from a Duke University hospital office.

They had agreed that Sondra Denise James would not have to spend time in prison if she paid all the money back during a five-year probationary period.

On Friday morning, Luke Bumm, the assistant district attorney on the case, and Whitney Williams, the defense attorney, rose before Judge Orlando Hudson, the resident chief superior court judge in Durham, to outline their agreement.

James sat at the defense table.

Bumm went first, laying out what he contended were the facts of the case. If it were to go to trial, Bumm said, investigators expected to show that James had used a credit card from the Duke University medical center office where she had worked to buy plane tickets, hotel rooms and cruises.

Williams was up next. She explained how James, with no full-time employment, planned to pay Duke back during the five years she was on probation.

What the defense attorney did not expect was tough questioning from Hudson and his stream of thoughts that touched on everything from the $60,000 a year it costs to go to Duke to the knee problems of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and UNC basketball coach Roy Williams to President Barack Obama and the bills he could face with his older daughter heading off to college in a year.

Hudson looked down from the bench at Williams, a criminal defense attorney just getting her footing in the Durham courts, and told her frankly that he did not think James was going to be able to pay everything back to Duke.

I’m sure that Duke wants their money. They ain’t one of the best universities in the world because people don’t pay their money.

Judge Orlando Hudson

He had someone else in the courtroom punch the numbers into a calculator so he could tell them that a probation officer might require James to pay back $726 a month, or a little more than $8,700 each year.

“I’m just wondering if the next time I come to Durham, I’m going to have to put her in jail because she hasn’t paid her restitution,” Hudson said. “I’m sure that Duke wants their money. They ain’t one of the best universities in the world because people don’t pay their money.”

Williams was not deterred. “She thinks she can pay the money back over five years’ time.”

But Hudson had more questions, asking where James was planning to find work that would provide her with enough money to pay back thousands of dollars each year.

Williams told the judge that James has a supportive husband, to which Hudson responded, “But he’s not the one that’s going to prison if he doesn’t pay.”

The defendant has a supportive husband, her lawyer told the judge. He responded, “but he’s not the one that’s going to prison if he doesn’t pay.”

James’ husband was in the courtroom, Williams responded, and Hudson called him from the gallery to the defense table so he could respond to questions. The husband, who recently had knee surgery, hobbled toward the front of the courtroom. Hudson uttered with incredulity, “He’s limping.”

James whispered to her attorney. “He’s recovering from knee surgery,” Williams relayed to Hudson.

“I look at TV and I see Mike Krzyzewski [who had knee surgery in April], and it’s one thing for him to recover from surgery – and Roy Williams [who has contemplated double knee surgery], but ...,” Hudson said before letting his thoughts trail off.

Hudson stressed again that James, who worked at Duke for nearly two decades, could face prison time if she did not keep up with whatever payment plan a probation officer sets.

The judge drew the line, though, when Williams asked whether he would include in his order accepting the plea arrangement that James could attend a family reunion in Florida in mid-October.

“You want me to give her the whole world,” Hudson said before rejecting the request and telling Williams she would have to work out any out-of-state travel plans with the probation officer assigned to the case.

“She’s going to have a whole lot of stuff she has to address with probation,” Hudson said before ending the hearing.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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