An eagle-eyed Michigan prosecutor, a quick-thinking judge and fast-moving police caught a man violating a restraining order in a dramatic confrontation that unfolded during a virtual court hearing.
Coby Harris, 21, had been ordered to have no contact with his girlfriend after his alleged Feb. 9 assault on her in Sturgis, Michigan, which is about 45 miles south of Kalamazoo.
Because of Covid-19 restrictions, a March 2 hearing on the case, in front of St. Joseph County District Court Judge Jeffrey Middleton, was virtual, via Zoom and YouTube. The hearing included appearances by Harris and the victim, presumably from separate locations.
More than seven minutes into the hearing, as Harris’ attorney objected to a question by prosecutor Deborah Davis, the woman appeared to look off camera to her right.
That’s when Davis interrupted the defense lawyer and told the court: “Your honor, I have reason to believe that the defendant is in the same apartment as the complaining witness right now and I’m extremely scared for her safety.”
Middleton immediately asked Harris and the woman where they were appearing from and both gave different addresses. The judge then asked Harris to walk outside with his cellphone and show the address.
“Umm why? I don’t even think that this phone has the charge for that, sir,” responded Harris, who was indoors and admitted to being near an electrical outlet. “I’m at 2 percent right now.”
The brief back-and-forth bought just enough time for police to show up at the woman’s apartment.
Shortly after the woman let officers inside, her box on Zoom vanished and Harris’ did, too.
A minute went by before the victim’s Zoom box returned to the screen — with Harris speaking to the judge as police appear to be handcuffing him inside the woman’s apartment. The prosecutor dropped her head into her hand.
“Your honor, we both don’t want the no-contact order,” said Harris, with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. “I asked that it be dropped. I’m sorry I lied to you. I knew the cops were outside. I don’t know why I lied to you.”
Middleton revoked bail and told Harris to stop talking, for his own good.
“Mr. Harris my advice is don’t say anything else. Take the cigarette out of your mouth,” Middleton said. “You’ve hit bottom and you’re continuing to dig.”
Harris is charged with assault, which is usually punishable by up to 10 years in prison. But as a repeat offender, Harris is looking at up to 15 years behind bars. He also faces obstruction of justice charges in connection with the virtual court incident, the judge said.
Middleton chalked up the episode to another oddity of life in a pandemic.
“It’s the first time I ever had anybody sitting in the next room, potentially intimidating a witness,” Middleton said. “This is an issue we didn’t have when we had live court.”
The judge acknowledged that Harris’ defense attorney clearly had no idea his client was violating a court order and he thanked Sturgis police for getting to the woman’s apartment so fast.
The prosecutor and Harris’ attorney could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday. Harris was still in jail on Thursday on the bail violation, a sheriff’s deputy said.
The victim could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in a Facebook posting earlier this week, she said she had broken out of an abusive relationship and was looking forward to a new life with her child.
David K. Li
David K. Li is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.