Much has changed at the Guilford County Public Defender’s Office in the past 50 years. Manual typewriters and rotary dial phones have been replaced by computers and smartphones. Records once painstakingly researched by hand are available at the blink of an eye via data searches.
But one thing remains the same — Cora Billups.
Billups is celebrating her 50th anniversary with the Guilford County Public Defender’s Office this year, the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services (IDS) announced today. She joined the newly opened public defender’s office In High Point in February 1971 after working in the clerk of superior court’s office. Billups received the prestigious Caswell Award in 2017, which marked 45 years of service to the State of North Carolina.
When the late Wally Harrelson, who is considered a founding father of public defense in North Carolina, sent Assistant Public Defender John Nieman to High Point to supervise the office, he told John to “make sure that Cora was the one who ran the office.” Nieman said that remains the case to this day.
In 1970, Governor Robert Scott appointed Harrelson as the first public defender in the state and established Guilford County as the site of the first public defender office. When Billups joined the staff, it was made up of only her and two attorneys. One of them was Fred Lind, later the second chief public defender in Guilford, who tasked Billups with manually preparing appeals using a typewriter.
Billups recounts a time when Lind returned from the first public defender's conference. He had recorded the conference and asked her to type a transcript. She was about halfway through when the other office attorney told Lind his request was completely unreasonable. A loud argument between the attorneys ensued. Billups stayed on task throughout the argument, never missing a keystroke.
That was characteristic of her work ethic and ability. Looking back, she says she is proud that none of the records on appeal that she prepared in those days were returned due to errors.
We thank Ms. Billups for the work she has done for the Guilford County Public Defender’s Office, our clients, and for the State of North Carolina.
Billups also recalls times when Harrelson would have her sit with him during major trials to take shorthand. During breaks, she would read back to him what she had recorded.
“I can only imagine the stories Ms. Billups has to tell after being an integral part of public defense in Guilford County for fifty years,” said Mary Pollard, executive director of the Office of Indigent Defense Services. “We thank Ms. Billups for the work she has done for the Guilford County Public Defender’s Office, our clients, and for the State of North Carolina.”