Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Charges, bonding, court dates and sentencing: a basic guide

North Carolina's 5th District Court covers district and felony court cases in New Hanover and Pender counties. (Port City Daily photo | BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
North Carolina’s 5th District Court covers district and felony court cases in New Hanover and Pender counties. (Port City Daily photo | BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

For those lucky enough not to come in contact with it, the judicial system can be a confusing and somewhat opaque organization. For readers following crime stories, the court system process can be hard to follow.

Sometimes, two suspects charged with the similar crimes face different charges and are given different bonds. Suspected criminals are charged, appear in court, and then aren’t heard from again for months — or years. In certain cases, Judges seem frustrated at the very sentences they themselves are handing down.

While every case is different, and no case is simple, this guide is intended to help readers navigate – from the outside – the criminal justice system in New Hanover County.


When someone is arrested by any of the municipal police departments or the Sheriff’s Office, they are charged by that arresting agency.

The District Attorney’s office advises many of the region’s law enforcement agencies, but they aren’t responsible for filing charges. With thousands of felonies – to say nothing of the tens of thousands of misdemeanors – the DA cannot, and does not, advise on every arrest.

“The police departments or Sheriff’s Office might reach out to us if they had an unusual or exceptionally tricky situation, and we could make advisements,” Samantha Dooies, assistant to District Attorney Ben David, said.

If the DA thinks there should be charges in addition to what law enforcement files, prosecutors can ask the Grand Jury for additional indictments.


Occasionally, suspects are held in small holding cells by municipal police forces, but in most cases they are taken to New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office detention center – the jail. Juveniles are taken to a separate facility, also run by the Sheriff’s Office. Suspects remain there until they are released on bond on go to court.

Bonds serve the purpose of making sure a suspect shows up for their court date and – in some cases – acts as de facto guarantee he or she will stay locked-up until that time. Bonds aren’t set by the DA; they’re set by magistrates, who work under Chief District Court Justice Jay Corpening. According to Dooies, Corpening has drafted a schedule of bonds – a framework of appropriate bonds based on the offense – but magistrates are not required to follow it.

Magistrates can use their discretion when issuing bonds, which can run from hundreds to millions of dollars. Bonds can be secured, which require suspects to pay in cash before they are released or “bonded out,” also referred to as unsecured, which requires only a formal promise to appear in court under penalty of the bond amount.

In domestic violence cases, suspects are held for 48 hours before they are allowed to bond out.

The DA doesn’t always agree with the magistrates’ bond decisions – which are often made quickly, based on preliminary evidence – and can ask for bonds to be increased or decreased during a suspect’s first appearance, although the actual decision is up to the District Court judge.

A recent example: New Hanover County School teacher Michael Earl Kelly was booked on child pornography charges and given a $100,000 secured bond by Magistrate David Kayler. The following day, Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan asked to increase that to $2 million, in light of future charges the prosecution planned on bringing. Judge Jeffrey Noecker raised the bond to $1.5 million.

The terms bond and bail are often used interchangeably, although Dooies said bond is the amount set and bail is the payment.

And, of course, there are numerous bonding agencies that will front suspects the money to bond out, usually for a 10 percent fee.

Court appearance and trial dates

In the majority of cases, suspects make their first appearance in court the day after they are arrested. During this first appearance, they are assigned public defenders if they are indigent (i.e. they can’t afford their own attorney). Both the defendant and the prosecution can request modifications to the bond at this point.

For felony cases, the first appearance is often the last time the defendant will appear in court for some time, even though his or her name will appear on official court calendars.

In the recent case of Christopher Anthony Simpson, charged in the violent beating death of a puppy named Axel, a group of protestors gathered on the date of Simpson’s second court appearance. Many demonstrators waited outside, but others went into the courtroom to wait for Simpson to show up – but ultimately left disappointed; Simpson never showed. In reality, Simpson won’t actually appear before a judge for months. Some felony defendants wouldn’t actually have a trial for years.

Tracking a defendant can be tricky: after a first appearance, defendants’ names will appear as a technicality on the court calendar.  In many cases this is because law enforcement is still conducting an investigation and the DA’s office is reviewing the case; this can take several weeks.

For serious crimes, cases will pass from District Court, which handles about 70,000 cases per year – including domestic violence, DWIs, drug offenses and tens of thousands of traffic violations – to Superior Court, where serious felonies are handled. These cases go through a Grand Jury, a process that can add six to eight weeks to the process, according to Dooies.

If a Grand Jury issues an indictment, the case goes on an administrative calendar in Superior court.

Trial dates, which are available through the court’s online system, can again be misleading. In some cases, the court simply “needs a place to park the case,” according to Dooies. This serves a placeholder date in the system, while both defense and prosecution work on their respective cases. In other cases, the court may issue a trial date to help expedite certain parts of the investigation, for example, state crime lab results.

These trial dates can be – and often are – continued, that is, moved to a future date. For felonies, it’s unlikely to see an actual trial for between six months and two years.


North Carolina has gone through several state-level changes in how judges deliver sentences, including the Fair Sentencing Act in 1981, Structured Sentencing in 1994, and Justice Reinvestment in 2011 – these legislative acts represent, in part, a balancing act between managing prison populations and ensuring appropriate sentencing.

The Fair Sentencing Act removed discretionary parole and replaced it with a system of “good time,” which allowed prisoners to earn a day off their sentence for every day they served without an infraction. While this has not been in effect since 1994, the public impression that all sentences are effectively “cut in half” once a prisoner leaves the court system for the Department of Corrections persists to this day.

The Structured Sentencing and Justice Reinvestment acts created and modified a grid-based “felony punishment chart,” which replaced judicial discretion with a data-driven system of sentencing based upon a defendant’s prior record, habitual felon status, the type of felony, and whether the crime was “aggravated” or “mitigated.”

Exceptions exist for drug trafficking and DUIs but, in general, structured sentencing now controls how judges sentence convicted felons.

The chart, for most purposes, constrains a judge to issuing a sentence within a fairly narrow range.

North Carolina Sentencing chart: Low-level H and I felonies include some drug possession crimes and many non-violent property crimes like embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretenses. However, animal cruelty is also a class H felony. Mid-level E, F and G felonies include repeated DWIs, some sexual assaults, violent assaults and involuntary manslaughter. Severe or high-level A, B, C and D felonies include arson, forcible rape, manslaughter and murder.

The North Carolina Felony Punishment Chart uses a matrix of prior record, habitual felon status, felony level, and whether the crime was aggravated or mitigated, to set minimum sentences (in months) that judges most follow. (Port City Daily image | COURTESY NORTH CAROLINA COURTS)
The North Carolina Felony Punishment Chart uses a matrix of prior record, habitual felon status, felony level, and whether the crime was aggravated or mitigated, to set minimum sentences (in months) that judges most follow. (Port City Daily image | COURTESY NORTH CAROLINA COURTS)

Related Articles