Judge Michael O’Foghludha tried to calm the defendant who wore the mask with the backwards swastika.
“Don’t get upset,” the judge said in soothing tones, as they talked over each other. “Don’t get upset. Nothing bad will happen unless you get upset.”
“I hope President Trump come back in power, to change all that’s happening here to our advantage,” the defendant, Murphy Stephens Wamala, replied.
Among the courtroom’s few onlookers, two public defenders and three men in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits all stared with interest.
Courthouses are full of characters — the inveterate case watcher; the wily, enigmatic defendant; the salt-of-the-earth judge. But even by Durham County Courthouse standards, Wamala was among the most disturbing of those who made an appearance on Sept. 21.
Wamala, 52, is Black, but he claims that “there was no slavery” and that “Hitler helped build this country.”
He was in court for a parole violation. On Sept. 18, after he failed to show up to a scheduled hearing, police arrested him and “beat my ass almost to death,” he said in an interview.
Three days later, he came to court for the hearing to declare what kind of legal representation he’d have.
Dressed in a camouflage hunting jacket and matching pants, Wamala arrived for his hearing just before 10 o’clock. In the vestibule between Courtroom 7D and the hallway, he spoke to a deputy for several minutes.
“[The deputy] asked, ‘What are you here for? What’s your name?’” said Wamala, who installs and maintains automatic car washes for a living. “I said, ‘What does that have to do with you?’”
The deputy told Wamala to wait in the hall, where he remained for over an hour.
Wamala’s probation violation came during the two years of freedom he’s been granted before serving a 12- to 24-month prison sentence. This sentence stems from a July 2020 incident in which Wamala struck and injured another driver, then drove away – all while his license was suspended.
Wamala’s rap sheet is full of other traffic violations. He’s received two driving while impaired (DWI) convictions: one in Chatham County in 2012 and one in Durham County in 2019. He pleaded guilty in 2012 to driving with a revoked license. And he was found responsible in 2018 for driving with an expired license and running a stop sign.
Wamala has also had numerous traffic charges dismissed in Durham County, including two DWI charges, two charges of driving with an altered tag or vehicle registration, and one charge each of driving without insurance, registration or a valid license. All since 2012.
But why did Wamala choose to Sharpie a swastika onto his white facemask before coming to court? He laughed when asked.
“This is not a swastika,” he said. “This is the opposite.”
A counterclockwise swastika, he explained, was a Roman symbol for freedom. He likes displaying it so that he can see how many people are ignorant about the difference between this version and a clockwise swastika.
Even so, Wamala — whose parents are from Uganda and Nigeria and who grew up in Sweden — expressed respect for Adolf Hitler and defended the Holocaust. While waiting in the hall, Wamala also offered other political views at length and with little prompting. He applauded those who stormed the U.S. Capitol in January, sang the praises of British imperialism, and called the “American Negro” corrupt and violent. Most of his opinions defied historical facts.
Wamala, who spoke in a loud voice, threw his whole body into his speech — once sliding to the far side of the hallway bench to illustrate a point, and another time pulling up a sleeve to show injuries allegedly left by police officers. He ping-ponged from topic to topic, talking almost nonstop.
One rare silence fell when Wamala spent several seconds watching a woman walk past on her way to court. Dressed in unassuming street clothes – skinny jeans and a T-shirt – she returned his stare.
At another point, Wamala also gave a friendly greeting to a passing man, who nodded back.
The deputy called Wamala into the courtroom around 11:15 a.m. He entered and stood at the center of the room, facing Judge O’Foghludha with his hands behind his back. An air of curiosity and caution hung in the room.
“Is there anything I have to say to the court?” Wamala said.
The judge informed him he just needed to decide on his legal representation. He asked if Wamala wanted Dan Meier, a public defender, to represent him.
“Probably,” Wamala said.
The deputy approached Wamala with a clipboard holding a form, and Wamala sat down to fill it out with his help. After a few minutes, the two retreated to the vestibule.
They stood facing each other, looking at the forms: the man in the reversed swastika face mask, toe-to-toe with justice.