WRAL Investigates

'He would have killed every single one of us,' judge says of defendant slain in Person courtroom shooting

Posted November 15, 2021 5:30 p.m. EST
Updated November 16, 2021 9:10 a.m. EST

— Two months after a criminal defendant was shot and killed in a Person County courtroom during an altercation with a bailiff, WRAL Investigates has obtained new details of the incident.

Christopher Thomas Vaughan, 35, of Oxford, became enraged during his trial on a misdemeanor false imprisonment charge. The bailiff and a Roxboro police officer worked to subdue Vaughan, but during the struggle, Vaughan got hold of the bailiff's gun. At that point, the Roxboro officer shot Vaughan.

A recording of the trial that day obtained by WRAL shows Vaughan and District Court Judge Caroline Burnette engaged in a three-minute confrontation that escalated before that.

Vaughan: I don't feel like I’m being adequately represented at this time.

Defense attorney Keesta Pass: Your honor?

Vaughan: I’d like to have her discontinued, and I’d like to have another lawyer represent me.

Judge: Sorry, you don’t get another lawyer, sir. You get Ms. Pass, or you represent yourself. What would you like to do?

Pass: Your honor, I’d like to withdraw because, apparently, he’s quite good at this.

Judge: Your motion to withdraw is allowed. Do you have any questions for the witness, sir?

Vaughan: Yes. I’d like to know why you said, you just said I was with nobody, and then you said I was with somebody. The man just asked you a question.

Judge: OK, ask one question. Was he with anybody, sweetie?

Victim: Yes.

Judge: OK, and what happened to that person?

Victim: They walked off.

Judge: They walked off. Next question.

Vaughan: Next question. He asked you just a minute ago, do you see the person that was at Walmart in the courtroom. You looked right at me, and you didn’t say nothing. He just led you to tell you that I was ...

Judge: OK, that’s an argument, sir, that’s not a question. That’s an argument.

Vaughan: That’s a question.

Judge: No sir, it’s not.

Vaughan: I’ll refrain [sic] the question then. Next question. Before he told you that I was sitting over here and that I was the person, could you tell that I was the person that tried to stop you at Walmart?

Victim: Yes.

Vaughan: Yes?

Victim: Yes.

Vaughan: I don’t got no more questions.

Judge: Thank you so very much.

Roxboro police Officer Trey Wright was then sworn in as a witness in the case.

Vaughan: This can’t be legal.

Judge: I’m sorry, sir?

Vaughan: This can’t be legal.

Judge: It’s 100 percent legal.

Vaughan: How is it 100 percent legal?

Judge: Tell me why you don’t think it’s legal.

Vaughan: I just told you that she was not representing me, that she was not asking any of the questions that I had.

Judge: Right. So now you’ve asked that you want to be your own attorney.

Vaughan: I never said that. You can’t rewind no camera footage or nothing that says I want to represent myself. I felt like she was not representing me at a suitable level.

Judge: OK.

Vaughan: I am in a court of law, and I am innocent until proven guilty.

Judge: That’s why we’re having this …

Vaughn: Do you understand that? I have no legal counsel.

Judge: Yes, sir, I do. I went to law school.

Vaughan: I have no legal counsel …

Judge: You had a right to have counsel, sir. You asked ...

Vaughan: Where they at?

Judge: She’s just ...

Vaughan: Where they at? She just withdrew, OK? So where’s my representation?

Judge: You had [one] right there.

Vaughan: How am I a lawyer? I’m not qualified for this.

Judge: The state of North Carolina gave you an attorney. Every person who sits in this room who pays taxes paid for her to be your attorney.

Vaughan: She withdrew. I didn’t …

Judge: Shut up.

Vaughan: You shut up.

Judge: Take him.

Vaughan: You telling me to shut up?

At that point, Vaughan stood up, threw a chair and charged toward the judge. The bailiff, Deputy J.R. Ray, intercepted Vaughan, and the two were wrestling on the ground when Ray started screaming that Vaughan had his gun.

Wright then rushed down from the witness stand and shot and killed Vaughan.

"I just had a bad feeling," Burnette recently told WRAL while reflecting on the chaos. "I heard shouting. You could see people punching."

Burnette and others retreated to her chambers as the struggle continued on the ground.

"When the door shut to the judge’s chambers, we heard the shot," she said.

The State Bureau of Investigation is reviewing the shooting, which is standard for officer-involved shootings. The final report and any decision on possible criminal charges are expected before the end of the year.

Burnette said she believes the actions of both law enforcement officers saved lives.

"If it wasn’t for the bailiff, I would be dead, and if it wasn’t for the investigator, 15 people would be dead," she said. "There’s no doubt in my mind he would have killed every single one of us."

As the judge continues to deal with post-traumatic stress from the incident, she’s also focused on getting more funding and more deputies in courtrooms.

"I never thought anything like that would happen in my courtroom – never in a million years," she said. "I don’t want anyone to ever have to go through what we went through that day. It was horrific."

She said she will no longer take any chances if courtrooms are understaffed.

"I will walk off the bench if there’s not enough security in the courtroom I’m in – 100 percent," she said.

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