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1 1 nnpr ThP CI | ll ? BRUNSWICK*? 2 BTVschedu/es, 8-9
til lVJv>l LI IV/ w3L4.ll SjgP ? Sports, Pages 10-16
A YOUNG DEFENDANT hears his sentence after pleading
guilty to an assault charge.
iiinrtrfki 4 r ru/rc . ? ... _ . staff photos by eric Carlson
JUL) Gfc C/-4 LbWIb of Hot ling Spring Lakes, the slate's youngest district court judge , presides over cases in Bladen County last week
State's Youngest Judge Tries To Moke A Difference
BY ERIC CARLSON
"Haven't I seen your face before?" the judge asks.
"Uh huh." comes the reply.
"Sir! Don't Uh-huh me!"
"Yes ma'am." the defendant answers sheepishly.
With chin on chest, the young man explains why he
was stopped for speeding twice in one week: because his
accelerator sticks and his speedometer doesn't work. At
least that's what he told the officers.
"Did he give you any trouble?" the judge asks
"No ma'am." he says.
The second patrolman relates a different experience.
"I stopped him on the same road and he told me the
same story," says Trooper White. "He wasn't quite so
nice to me. He made some rather unpleasant com
The defendant explains that he was distraught over
getting a second ticket and admits that he may have been
"Did you apologize to Trooper White?" the judge
"No ma'am. ..Do you want me to?" He takes one
look at her expression and turns to Trooper White. He
tells him how sorry he is for behaving rudely.
A wave of muffled giggling runs through the audi
"Bailiff! Get my courtroom quiet!" snaps the judge.
Silence returns before the deputy can get the words out.
It's hard to believe these verbal whip-cracks are
coming from the pretty young woman with the flashing
eyes and big smile sitting in her black robe at the busi
ness end of district court.
The atmosphere is a fascinating mix of relaxed jocu
larity and strict order. She jokes and laughs with attor
neys and law officers, and sometimes even with defen
dants, who are shown the same respect thai she expects
from them. But anyone who steps out of line does so at
Such is the judicial style of Ola Lewis, the Boiling
Spring Lakes woman who, at age 28, is the youngest
district court judge in North Carolina. A former prosecu
tor under District Attorney Rex Gore, Lewis was ap
pointed to the bench last spring as the district bar associ
ation's top candidate to replace Judge Jack Hooks.
In just six months, Lewis has garnered praise from
prosecutors, law enforcement officers and defense attor
neys alike. Ask anybody who works with Lewis ? on ei
ther side of the bar ? and you're likely to hear, "She's
tough. ..but fair."
"She's a wonderful judge," says Trooper Clark
White. "She was a wonderful prosecutor. She's thought
ful of both the public and law enforcement. Everyone re
spects her very much."
The next defendant is a 17-year-old we'll call
Thomas, who pleads guilty to assault, inflicting serious
injury. Slouching before Judge Lewis, he looks at her
with the cocky defiance of one who has been through
this before and left unimpressed.
The victim describes the assault. He tells Lewis
about the stitches that were necessary to close his
LISTENING to a relative describe a 1 7-year-old
defendant , Judge Lewis considers how best to
sentence the young man.
"You have to start with the
premise that everybody knows _
right from wrong and that
people make conscious
choices. .. At some point you
need to stand up and say ; 7 m
? Judge Ola Lewis
wounds and his $650 in medical bills. The prosecutor
outlines Thomas's previous arrest record. The judge asks
him if he has anything to say for himself.
"Yeah," Thomas mumbles. "When this is over, you
tell him to stop getting in my face."
"Is that your only concern, sir?" Lewis asks, glaring
down at him.
"Oh yeah," he says, shifting his weight from one leg
!o the other. "I'm sorry for hitting him."
"Two years in the Department of Correction!" snaps
Lewis. Turning to the bailiff she adds, "Mr. Flynt, take
him away right now. I want him out of my sight!"
Thomas's jaw falls and his eyes grow wide when the
handcuffs close around his wrists. There are no more tit
ters from the audience as Lewis proceeds with a typical
morning of adjudicating misdemeanants.
A woman charged with failing to secure her child in a
car seat pleads guilty, but with an explanation: he vomited
in the seal and she didn't have time to clean it up.
Lewis asks a man charged with speeding and reck
less driving what kind of car he drives. "A Mustang." he
says. She levies a hefty fine ajid suggests he "might
want to think about buying a Hyundai."
Another man pleads guilty to assault on a female.
Ljewis tells him she will suspend his jail sentence if he
agrees to stay away from the woman.
"But we live together." the man savs.
"Uuuuuugh," Lewis moans in frustration. "O.K.,
then. You are not to threaten or harass this woman. If it
is alleged that you have done so, I will set your bond so
high that you will not see the break of day.
"That is not a threat. It's a promise," Lewis said. "So
if she gets on your nerves, you just walk out the door!"
During a recess, Lewis asks to see Thomas's cousin
in her chambers. She asks, "What are we going to do
The cousin explains that Thomas is not a bad kid. He
just has a bad temper. He is still in high school and will
be going to one of the new "boot camps" next summer
as part of another judge's order on another conviction.
"I know jail is not the answer for this young man.
But we've got to do something now to get his attention,"
Lewis says. "He's at least going to sit down there w hile I
eat my lunch.
"1 just don't want to see him end up dead," she says
as the cousin leaves.
Lewis says the rising tide of youth violence is the
biggest challenge facing the legal system. As more and
more young people come before her with the same sto
ries and the same bad attitudes. Lewis says it's tough to
remember that each one is unique.
"It's one of the most frustrating things about this job.
I just don't want to give up on kids," Lewis says. "I get
accused of preaching to them. But if I can look past the
negative and reach for something good.. .If I can make a
difference in just one of their lives, I can say it was a job
Lewis doesn't accept easy excuses for criminal be
havior. She doesn't want to hear about a defendant "go
ing bad" simply because his family is less fortunate than
others or because he doesn't have a perfect home life.
"You have to start with the premise that everybody
knows right from wrong and that people make conscious
choices to go the right way or the wrong way," she said.
"At some point you need to stand up and say, 'I'm re
She sometimes tells young offenders about her
mother, who grew up poor in a single-parent household.
About how she lived on a farm and picked cotton. How
she overcame 'ner disadvantages, married a soidier and
raised a family of her own, with an ambitious and suc
cessful daughter named Ola.
I^wis grew up in Cumberland County, where her fa
ther Mose Lewis was stationed at Fort Bragg. After re
tirement, he took a job with the Brunswick County
schi>ol system and eventually became assistant superin
After graduating from high school and Fayetteville
State University, Lewis embarked on a career in bank
ing. It wasn't long before she realized that women are
slow to advance in the male-dominated world of fi
nance. So she decided to go back to school.
After earning her law degree at N.C. Central
University. Lewis joined the Raleigh law office of Dan
Blue, speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives.
After working as a law clerk and "following politicians
around" for a year. Lewis felt she needed courtroom ex
perience. She also wanted to he closer to her father. So
she took a job as one of Rex Core's assistant district at
"That was absolutely the best thing I could have
done," Lewis remembers. "Rex was a good person to
work for. I learned a lot from him and I got a lot of ex
perience in a short time."
Lewis found the change from prosecutor to judge to
be "a very easy transition." She works in the same court
rooms ? in Brunswick. Bladen and Columbus coun
ties ? and sees the same sort of cases. With too many de
fendants like Thomas.
"Oh my goodness. I almost forgot. He's still down
there," says Lewis as the court session draws to a close.
"What do you do in a case like this?"
It is a more docile and subdued Thomas who returns
from the jail to face Judge Lewis. He describes his home
as "a hole." He explains how his brother always gets on
his nerves. How he can't back down when challenged.
How he can't seem to "leave it alone" when a conflict
"I ain't a bad boy. I know I can do better." he says.
"I know you're not a bad boy. That's exactly why
I'm not giving up on you," Lewis says as she reads over
his school records. "It says here that you're on the bas
ketball team. That you're doing good in school. You've
got all but two passing grades."
Lewis agrees to suspend Thomas's prison sentence
and to put him on seven months' house arrest. She or
ders him not to miss a single day in school, to behave as
a gentleman, to get no grade lower than a C, to abide by
an 8 p.m. curfew (except for work, school or church
functions), to get a job and pay back his victim.
She also orders Thomas to write a 10-page essay ti
tled "Youth Violence In America." In it. she tells him to
describe his ambitions in life and how he plans to
achieve those goals.
Thomas winces at the thought of spending every
night for seven months locked up at home. He meekly
asks the judge if she might consider reducing that part of
"I'm already giving you a break!" Lewis says.
"You've had your free bite of the apple. Now you've got
to show ME something.
"You show me that you can stay out of trouble. You
show me some good grades. You show me that you've
got a job and that you're going to pay back this man's
hospital bills. If you do that, you can come back in three
months and we'll see about taking you off house arrest.
Is that a deal?"
"Yes ma'am," he says.
"I'm doing this because I want you to survive, my
James V. Mulholland M.D.
Fellow of American Academy of Pediatrics
The Only Board Certified
in Brunswick County ?
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