The rapid political and professional climb of 35-year-old Superior Court Judge Terry Sherrill has come to a sudden halt with his arrest in a Charlotte neighborhood where vice officers said crack cocaine and other drugs are sold and used on the streets.
Sherrill, who was appointed to a District Court judgeship when he was just 28 and elected a Superior Court judge three years later, was arrested late Saturday night and charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana.A Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was arrested after police passed what they called a ``smoke-filled' 1987 silver-blue Toyota pickup truck parked on a residential street in the Wilmore neighborhood about a mile southwest of downtown Charlotte.
Officers said they found Sherrill alone in the truck and could smell the strong scent of burning marijuana as they approached. The truck was searched, and officers said they found a marijuana cigarette, a pipe that contained what they said is cocaine residue and a plastic bag with a small amount of white powder.
The powder is being tested to see if it is a narcotic.
Sherrill has no prior record, and police said he was cooperative when arrested.
Considered one of the state's most promising young Democratic and black political leaders, Sherrill is free on his own recognizance and will enter a plea at a hearing set for 1:30 p.m. April 2 in Mecklenburg Superior Court.
Reached at his home Monday, Sherrill declined to comment on the advice of his lawyer, James Ferguson. Previously Ferguson said Sherrill plans to plead not guilty.
He is charged with possession of cocaine, which is a felony, misdemeanor possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia - the pipe - also a misdemeanor.
Dallas Cameron, assistant director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said he cannot recall another North Carolina judge ever being charged with drug violations.
State Chief Justice Jim Exum said he's taken court assignments away from Sherrill while charges are pending. And, no matter what the outcome of court proceedings, an investigation by the Judicial Standards Commission could result in Sherrill's being stripped of his judgeship.
He will continue to receive his $71,000-a-year salary even though he isn't being assigned to any court duties. There is no provision in state law to suspend the pay of a judge or other elected official while in office.
Those who know Sherrill personally, politically and professionally say they are shocked.
He is unanimously described as bright, able, hard-working, articulate and friendly.
``The entire legal community is shocked and saddened by what we hear,' said Parks Helms, a Charlotte lawyer, former state legislator and former Mecklenburg County Democratic chairman.
``Obviously, its much too early to draw any conclusions from any of this, but ... even when a charge is made, it is a tragic and unfortunate circumstance,' he said.
State Rep. Dan Blue, D-Wake, a former chairman of the Black Legislative Caucus, said, ``To have won a statewide election, to be so young, indicates the level of potential.'
In 1986, Sherrill ran in one of two contested Superior Court judgeships. He finished first, defeating his Republican opponent by nearly 48,000 votes to win one of two spots in the Mecklenburg County district.
``In his campaign for that judgeship, he didn't lack any enthusiasm for it,' said state Rep. H.M. ``Mickey' Michaux, D-Durham, the Black Legislative Caucus chairman. ``Everywhere I went, Terry was there or had been there. He knew how to make contacts and the people to talk to. Politically, he could have gone anywhere he wanted to go.'
Back in the early 1970s, Sherrill was a scholarship student at the Virginia Episcopal School, an exclusive boarding school in Lynchburg.
``Terry didn't waver one way or the other from the straight path,' said his former biology teacher, Will Jenkins, now the school's registrar. ``We felt he ought to be kicking against us a little bit.'
After all, he explained Monday, Sherrill was one of the first black students at a school that traditionally has educated some of the South's wealthiest white children.
This was a tough spot for a young black man from a working-class family in the north Mecklenburg town of Huntersville. Sherrill still attends his childhood church in Huntersville - North Mecklenburg Presbyterian - where he's an elder.
While former teachers found traces of anger in some of his papers, Sherrill's day-to-day demeanor was friendly and gracious. His teachers were impressed with the richness of his writing and his searching mind.
James Fox, who taught Sherrill at Alexander Junior High School in Huntersville, said he comes from a warm, loving Christian home. Both parents worked and sought to give their children the best educational opportunities possible.
If he remembers correctly, Fox said, a large educational foundation spotted Sherrill's potential and provided the scholarship to Virginia Episcopal School.
He became class valedictorian there and won a Morehead Scholarship, which provides all expenses for an undergraduate education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Sherrill impressed people he met. Mebane Pritchett, now president of the Coca-Cola Foundation in Atlanta, was executive director of the Morehead Foundation in Chapel Hill when Sherrill was chosen in 1973 for the scholarship, thus becoming one of the first black students to receive it.
``He was certainly an outstanding individual on campus and a tradition breaker,' Pritchett said.
Those who know Sherrill, though, wonder if the act of rebellion they kept looking for finally surfaced Saturday night in Wilmore, on the other side of Charlotte from the integrated middle-class neighborhood in which Sherrill lives.
``This is a real shock,' said Jenkins, who has kept up with his former student and took pride in his fast climb in the legal profession. ``He was one of my absolute favorites and still is. I don't care what he has done. Well, I do care, but it is just incredible how drugs have taken hold of our society.'
Ron Chapman, a Charlotte lawyer who worked in the Mecklenburg County Public Defenders Office with Sherrill before he became a judge, said he has been with Sherrill on many social occasions. He said he saw nothing to suspect the judge might have been taking drugs.
Chapman spent a good part of Monday talking to others close to Sherrill to see if they detected any indication of trouble. They, too, were dumbfounded by the arrest.
Chapman believes Sherrill felt pressure being on the bench and in the legal profession.
``This society and the black community puts an almost unbearable amount of pressure on black lawyers and judges,' he said. ``The same of course is true of anyone who rises to that level, but I think there is an overlaying of added responsibility for a black person that is hard to live up to.'