It’s not often you get to meet someone who has made Guiness’s Book of World Records. But Lumberton’s Joe Freeman Britt did — for putting more people on death row than ANYBODY. He served decades as Robeson County’s prosecutor before being elected to a term on The Superior Court bench.
As a fellow Lumbertonian, I got to know Britt personally. As a young drive-by reporter covering the goings-on at the county courthouse, I got to see him in action on the Superior Court bench.
The news of his passing, at age 80, on Wednesday hit like a load of bricks. For a guy as tough as Joe Freeman Britt, you couldn’t imagine ANYTHING bringing him down.
I am a physically large person. He was one of the few people I regularly encountered who could literally overshadow me. He had the look of a Bond villain and a booming voice that made James Earl Jones sound girly and likely could have made Darth Vader cower in respect. Though, his wife Marilyn — a sweet, kind, petite woman — helped provide him with a soft side that a few select people got to see.
I heard one attorney joke, one time, about how Britt’s voice made him actually look up to the heavens, thinking God Almighty was literally speaking to him.
Britt’s hearing started fading at an earlier-than-expected age. I don’t believe he realized how much BOOM his voice had — because he couldn’t hear it at the same volume the rest of us could.
One great story, related to that, occurred during a drug-related murder case I was covering in his courtroom. At one point, a heavily tattooed inmate — who HAD been a hitman for a drug cartel – -was called to testify in the bench next to Britt. I could tell the judge was struggling with hearing the testimony. Finally, at one point, Britt leaned over the bench — just a few feet away from the witness — and bellowed: “Speak up !!!”
I could swear that the chandelier in the courtroom shook in response to his exclamation. I know the witness did. This hardnosed felon nearly jumped out of his seat in reaction to the judge. He was visibly shaken during the remainder of his testimony — occasionally taking a nervous glance over at the judge.
When Britt was holding court in Lumberton, he and I had a regular tradition at the end of the day. I had a standing invitation to join him in his chambers for a good cigar and an off-the-record discussion of the day’s events. The guy was well-read and absolutely brilliant. He would bring up stuff EVEN I had to go look up afterward. Those get-togethers would even produce some hearty laughs from the judge that would echo through the closed doors and down the hallway. (His secretary joked that those were so rare during the work day that she could tell I was visiting just by the sound of the man’s laugh.)
On many a day, while sitting at my desk in the newsroom, I’d get a call from Judge Britt’s secretary. She would say something along the lines of: “I am told there will be something happening in courtroom number one in about ten minutes that could be very interesting to you.”
That would be enough to pique my curiosity. I’d grab my notebook and pen and hustle the one block over to the courthouse. I’d get into the courtroom to see the proceedings in recess. A bailiff would see me enter, and then disappear into a back room. In a minute or so, the bailiff would return with the judge and the “All rise ..” call. They were waiting for me.
Judge Britt was a guy who ran things with an iron fist — first at the DA’s office, and then his courtroom. Things were to start on time, and attorneys and all court personnel were expected to follow the rules to the TEE. (Very reminiscent of the operating style of Randolph County district court judge Rob Wilkins.)
Of course, the local defense bar hated his guts. You couldn’t do sly, backroom deals with him. At one point, the district attorney’s office was having a hard time lining up cases for Britt’s courtroom. Hey, the guy sent 47 people to death row. Who wants to try their luck with him?
I’ll never forget one time when I was sitting in one of the prosecutor’s offices, doing an interview, when Judge Britt burst in. He was chomping on a cigar and had his judicial robe hiked up around his waist, with his hands on his hips. That was the classic sign that ‘The Big Judge’ was pissed off.
The judge instructed the prosecutor before me, in language I can’t reproduce here, that he better get hopping on finding him some cases to hear — or he was going to start sending employees of the D.A.’s office to jail on contempt of court.
The judge then spun around and stomped out of the office, slamming the door behind him. Once the door was closed, the prosecutor made a sort of ‘nanny-nanny-boo-boo’ face toward the location the judge had been standing. I quipped to the prosecutor: “You want me to go get him, and bring him back, so you can actually do that to his face?”
Needless to say, the prosecutor declined my offer.
Sources at the sheriff’s department told me they would regularly hear hard-core felons residing in the county jail fretting about the possibility of going before ‘The Big Judge.’
I remember another case where a certain assistant DA and a certain defense attorney were really trying Britt’s patience. They were stumbling and bumbling through their case. Finally, Britt held up his hand and interrupted them: “I’ve had all of this I can take. We’re going into recess.”
At that point, the court recessed. I remained in the courtroom with a lot of the other spectators. The attorneys and the judge disappeared into a back room. Suddenly, the judge’s voice can be heard from the backroom: “You two dummies are f—ing this thing up majorly. You are quickly running out of time to un-f— it.”
Nervous giggles went up through the courtroom as the prosecutor and defense attorney sheepishly returned to the courtroom. Needless to say, things went a lot smoother after that.
I remember another occasion where Judge Britt summoned the head of every law enforcement agency operating in the county to his courtroom. Of course, I had been summoned too, with a photographer in tow, to record the event for posterity. The judge explained to these lawmen that he was sick of officers not showing up for proceedings in his courtroom. He explained to them that the buck stops with them — as agency heads. The judge explained that they would be subject to contempt of court proceedings if they continued to have problems with officers showing up to court.
Joe Freeman Britt — in my book — had all the right enemies: the Bill Barber style race pimps, the UNC law school faculty, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro crowd, and the rest of the professional left. He was a longtime Democrat — as many of his generation were — but I doubt he ever voted for a Democrat, outside of local races. His views on the issues pretty much made him a soul-mate of Jesse Helms.
He told me at one point the NCGOP had been seriously talking to him about switching parties and running for state attorney general or even for Congress. He said he turned them down. He didn’t like Raleigh or DC, and was too much of a small-town homebody.
After leaving the bench, he surprised a lot of people by quietly hanging up his shingle as a plaintiff’s / defense attorney. He was taking on a role he often expressed contempt for while on the bench. I think it had more to do with boredom — seeking a new challenge. (Getting that big paycheck probably didn’t hurt, either.) He had already kicked butt and taken names as a judge and a prosecutor. He wasn’t the type to take on old retired man activities like binging on bridge or golf.
Most of his later years were spent quietly with Marilyn and the family.
Post-retirement, a number of the penalty cases he won were overturned on technicalities. Britt’s successor in the D.A.’s office went public with criticism of the former judge and prosecutor’s handling of those cases that were overturned. In response, dismayed by what he saw as a lack of support from the prosecutor’s office, Britt publicly — on the record — called his successor in the prosecutor’s office a p—y.
Joe Freeman Britt was different from a lot of your politicians. He would never be accused of being warm and fuzzy. He wasn’t one to sugar-coat things or tell you what you wanted to hear. Average people respected him because he refused to quietly accept or surrender to the nonsense peddled by so many seen as destroying our society. The political class hated him because he wasn’t a sure thing to play ball their way. Too “unpredictable.”
One thing is for sure: He was literally and figuratively a giant. He made a significant mark on his community and the society around him. He was among the last of a dwindling breed we need more of.
I am sure that — inside St. Peter’s gate — cigar smoke and a booming laugh are reverberating across the heavens.