Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
When Vernetta Cockerham entered the Yadkin County Courthouse on June 29, 2009, for the start of a trial in her five-year case against the town of Jonesville, NC, and two of its police officers, she was not alone. Behind her, filling up the rows in the courtroom, was a gathering of supporters from advocacy groups across the state who had come to show strength and solidarity with her mission. Vernetta, poised and quiet up front, was touched by the display. "We had a small stand-in for justice," she says. "It was beautiful."
In November 2002, the unthinkable happened to set these events into motion: Her estranged husband, Richard Ellerbee, broke into her house and brutally bound, beat, and suffocated her 17-year-old daughter, Candice, and then injured Vernetta within inches of her life (a long scar runs down her neck as evidence). She had gotten a protective order (also known as a restraining order) against him, and in the month leading up to the attack, she had done everything in her power to make sure the order was enforced, reporting his violations to the local police. By law, he should have been thrown in jail for those actions, and the evening before the crime, she says, the police assured her he would be behind bars.
It took a long time for Vernetta's wounds to heal, both physically and mentally, and almost exactly two years after that fateful day, Vernetta filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Jonesville and two police officers. Now, five years later, on Tuesday, June 30, 2009, a settlement was reached just a day after the case was about to go to trial. A jury pool had been called on Monday and at the close of the day, lawyers from both sides met to discuss jury selection but wound up coming to a settlement instead. When court reconvened the next morning, the judge announced the case had been settled and Vernetta was awarded a sum of $430,000.
"I was never there to beat up the town financially or get millions and millions of dollars. I began this case—I think we put in for $10,000 at first—because I wanted to try to start a shelter for battered women," she says. "It took a long time, but this was well worth the wait for the people that it's going to help. The strengthening of domestic violence laws is happening right now, and I love being involved. I'm hoping to be able to implement services and changes in Yadkin county; that's what the settlement means to me."
Much of Vernetta's involvement and advocacy work has been done through the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She is an active volunteer, and she has spoken numerous times about her ordeal and will continue to be involved in as many ways as she can. The coalition's executive director, Rita Anita Linger, who was in the courtroom both Monday and Tuesday, welcomes her efforts.