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Posts tagged as “Crime”

Hillside High production captures the cost of gun violence

The trouble started when Hillside High School student Logan Lewis hopped off the stage and into the audience wielding a fake handgun. 

Gunshots sounded, and a student actor on stage crumpled to the floor, dropping another fake handgun. The victim’s friend picked up the gun and chased Lewis to his home where he pounded his fists on the door, screaming for his mother. More gunshots rang out, and Lewis’ mother opened the door to find her son dead on her doorstep. 

In the blink of an eye, the fictional community became a crime scene: Yellow tape wrapped around the porch and desperate sobs from huddled family members pierced the air, echoed by sniffles from the audience. 

It was all made up, an emotional scene toward the end of Hillside’s production of an original play “State of Urgency.” 

But the play also reflects actual events. “State of Urgency” originated as a response to Durham’s worsening gun violence problem. It also draws upon the real-life experiences of Hillside students, linking the experience of street violence with classroom struggles. 

The play was performed three times over the weekend of November 14-16, and discussions are underway about presenting the play to other school audiences around Durham in the future.

A student-teacher collaboration

Hillside Drama Director Wendell Tabb wrote the play together with 16 Hillside students, including 11th-grader and Drama Club President Aniya Lowe.

“I got emotional at times,” Lowe said. “It’s really the nicest people to go through the worst things…They’re speaking about it to you and you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, this happened to you and I didn’t even know’.”

The play—the school’s first in-person production since the pandemic began—featured powerful monologues drawn from students’ personal experiences, as well as moving original songs and dance numbers. It addressed a range of issues, from colorism and school bullying to police brutality and Black-on-Black violence, forming a collage of the harsh realities feeding the growth of gun violence in Durham. 

A call to action

Act One of “State of Urgency” opens with a flurry of emotions: Students, all wearing t-shirts with taglines such as “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” yell out desires for peace, safety and mental health support. The voices crescendo into a collective question, perhaps pointed at the police, the government, the adults in the room, or all three: “Where are you?” 

It is the first of many appeals to the audience. 

The play’s action takes place on a city block, with a corner store, community recreation center and living quarters. 

The audience first sees the block as it was in 1979: unified, safe and lively. Things quickly deteriorate as flashing lights and eerie music bring us into the present, where the block feels isolated and unsafe.

Scenes of police brutality follow, along with scenes of school strife, where colorism and materialism lead to bullying and exclusion. 

Act Two opens with the students wandering the block, lamenting the violence they are living through. 

The scenes that follow look beyond the world of high school, including a depiction of a traffic stop gone fatally awry. A traffic officer mistakes a man’s phone for a gun and shoots the man as passersby capture the tragic death on camera. The stage sweeps into a Black Lives Matter protest, with students hoisting signs and chanting.

The play also spotlights intergenerational debates over police reform and the value of protesting.

“Preserve the good and weed out the bad,” the cast says in unison, summarizing the debate.

The play wraps up with the students returning to the stage and imploring the audience to look within and be the change they want to see.

“This was a call to action,” Oral Chinfloo, a Hillside parent said after the performance. “I hope people reflect on what they just witnessed.”

Fiction and real life

The play pays homage to civil rights leaders of the past, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. 

Outside the theater, Tabb also highlighted local activism. In the building’s foyer, organizations such as Bull City United and Guns Down Hearts Up set up tables devoted to their work against gun violence. The Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt stretched along the foyer, holding over 800 names, each written on a cloth square. One square held the name of Robert Antone Baines, who was fatally shot in February 2021. His mother, Brenda Young, stood quietly nearby.

Before the play began, Tabb welcomed Young to the stage. Young shared how senseless violence took the lives of three of her family members. She begged members of the audience to help end local gun violence. 

“I grieve every day,” Young said. “Don’t wait ’til it hits you… You do not want to go through this pain.”

Tabb then asked any victims of gun violence in the audience to stand. Six people rose.

After the play, as students greeted their families outside the theater for congratulatory hugs, a few people congregated around the memorial quilt. Young stood over the quilt, looking at the square with her son’s name on it. Closer to the middle of the quilt,  a young dancer wept quietly over another cloth square. 

“Even though this is make-believe for us in terms of theater, this is not make-believe in real life,” Tabb said in an interview afterward. “It’s not a game. And as a community, we can’t treat it as a game.”

Above, Brenda Young points to her son’s name on the Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt, on display at Hillside High School during the production of ‘State of Urgency’. Photo by Olivia Olsher – The 9th Street Journal 

Reflections: The Podcast, Episode 2

 

In this latest Reflections podcast, Lilly Clark talks about how the news media’s coverage of the courts system sometimes does more harm than good. And she offers some thoughts on how reporters and editors can do better.  Listen on Apple or Spotify.

This podcast is part of a series that features 9th Street Journal reporters discussing lessons they’ve learned — about themselves and about journalism — as they’ve worked on articles for the site. The first podcast spotlighted Grace Abels.

Reflections is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

Despite reform, unwritten rules run NC’s bail industry

In Vance County on a recent Tuesday, a bail bondsman faced off against the school board attorney: $15,000 was at stake.

Two eldery bailiffs manned the metal detector in the courthouse. Past a few squares of mousy carpet, a sign above two gray doors read “District Court #1.”

Bail is complicated. State laws, judges’ policies, District Attorneys’ office culture, and even the discretion of school boards influence the bail bonds industry and determine whether people can pay the price of their freedom. 

Despite a DA policy discouraging cash bail, the industry is very much alive in Durham and throughout the state. And dozens of people in that spacious courtroom were about to witness the complex system in action. 

Sekayi Brown, the bondsman, felt a little nervous. He sported a black polo shirt tucked into khakis, and his black mask was adorned with the NC Bail Agents Association (NCBAA) logo. Tattoos sprawled across the thick carob-colored biceps of this ex-Marine and former chef with a criminal justice degree. 

Brown drove the 45 minutes from his Durham office to ask the judge for his money back.

‘Too big of a risk’

In North Carolina, if someone misses court, a bondsman has five months to find them. If they don’t, they have to pay. But then they have another three years to recover the person and appeal to get their money back.

Laws like these shape bondsmen’s unwritten rules. For example, many bondsmen refuse to bail out immigrants out of fear that they could flee, Brown said, though that’s not his policy.

Brown said he’s often willing to take riskier bonds because he doubles as a bail enforcement agent, or bounty hunter. He has the tools and manpower to find people himself. 

But sometimes even recovering a person in the five-month window isn’t enough. If a person fails to appear twice, gets out on bond again, and misses court for any reason, the bondsman has no chance to get that money back. The person facing charges may be laid up in the hospital. It doesn’t matter. No exceptions. 

Brown used to write some of those bonds anyway. He usually doesn’t anymore. 

“That’s just too big of a risk for us to keep doing until they change that statute,” he said.

In his Durham office parking lot, black truck idling, one of Brown’s two cell phones rang with a case just like that.

“Brown Bail Bonding,” he answered. 

On the line was a woman who had missed court twice on misdemeanor charges for property damage: she said she broke a window in 2019. She had just learned about a warrant for her arrest and expected a $2,000 bond, though she hadn’t turned herself in yet. 

She works as a nurse and has kids. She has no time to sit in jail.

Brown told her he doesn’t usually write these anymore, but if she puts up $1,000 as collateral, which she’ll get back after the trial, plus the $300 nonrefundable fee, he’ll do it. If she misses court again, he’ll have the collateral to cover some of the loss. She agrees to his conditions.

After the call, Brown said he could tell that she’d talked to other bondsmen and heard one “no” after another. One more missed court date and the money’s lost for good, so they won’t do it.

“A lot of people are in jail for that reason,” Brown said. ”Right now, they have two [failures to appear] and no bondsman will get them out.” 

The debate over cash bail

Cash bail is an old system, one that burgeoned during the tough-on-crime era in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The NC Bail Agents Association formed in 1992 and has lobbied since then to reduce the risk of financial loss to bondsmen, motivating them to write more bonds.

Now the industry has power in the legislature, and community advocates want to see the end of bail. Groups like the NC Community Bail Fund of Durham, created in 2017, say the current money bail system criminalizes poverty. It forces people who can’t afford to post their own bail to pay a fee to a bondsman or plead guilty to go free quickly. The alternative — staying in jail, even for just a few days — could mean risking their jobs or custody of their children.

Without financial resources, people throughout North Carolina sit in jail for low level crimes, even though they’re not likely to flee or pose a danger to the community, experts say. That’s punishment for being poor, activists say, and they want the laws changed.

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry ran on a platform of decreasing cash bail, and her office has a policy that discourages it. Assistant District Attorney Daniel Spiegel said they try to detain dangerous individuals on high bond and release everyone else.

This would mean, in an ideal world, there would be no small bonds in Durham County. No one would worry about paying their way out of jail for breaking a window. But it isn’t that easy. 

“It’s just not something that the law allows right now — to just decide release or no release, without money involved,” said Sarah Willets, spokesperson for the DA’s office.

The second-chance guy

Brown had seen some of this. He had noticed some big bonds getting bigger and small bonds getting smaller, with more people released on a written promise to appear. But he still has plenty of business.

Asked about a situation like that of the woman who called Brown, Spiegel said cases like hers aren’t easy.

“Where someone has a relatively minor offense, maybe a misdemeanor, and continually misses court, that can be very difficult,” he said.

Durham judges also have a bail policy that contradicts the DA’s. Theirs includes a bail schedule that recommends a dollar range by type of charge, something Deberry’s office hopes to leave behind.

Surprisingly, Brown doesn’t insist on bond’s necessity.

“Do I think that if you get arrested, you should have a bond? I don’t think you need to have a bond every time,” he said. “In my heart, I believe that most people will go to court. If given the option, they’ll go to court without having a secured bond.”

He’s also the second chance guy. With beliefs about innocence shaped by an internship fingerprinting sex offenders in California, to him, every charge is just an allegation until it’s tried. 

“I’m trusting that you’re gonna go to court. Right?” he said. “That’s really all I care about.”

A strict interpretation

Erwin Santo, the Vance County no-show, wasn’t easy to find after he missed court in May. Though Santo faced DWI charges in Vance, Durham was home. That’s why Brown got involved.

Back in the courtroom, Brown told the judge that he apprehended Santo twice. Once, he caught him at a nightclub but let him go because his ID claimed he was someone else. That was two days before the five-month deadline. 

Brown clasped his hands on the podium as he faced the judge. He had paid the court $15,000 and kept looking for Santo. He said he found him again 36 days later and took him to jail. 

Surrendered bail money goes to fund county schools, so the white lawyer with a swoop of gray hair, glasses and an orange tie, Jerry Stainback, stood near the judge to represent the school board.

Stainback asked the judge for a “strict interpretation” of the five-month statute.

“Motion denied,” said Judge Amanda Stevenson, glancing up. It all took less than two minutes. 

Shocked, Brown retreated back over the mousy carpet, past the bailiffs and metal detector. 

“She’s just like, no expression, just denied. Like, what?” he said outside in the car. “It just kind of left a bad taste in my mouth.”

Brown made $1,500 minus fees off this bond initially, but it’s a net loss. An “expensive lesson,” he said. In Durham County, he’d have gotten the money back without appearing before a judge — that’s the school board lawyer’s practice here.

Brown later said he plans to appeal the decision.

While small bonds are still around, the rules that discourage bondsmen from posting bail for certain people remain convoluted and widely unknown. Whether it’s two failures to appear  or the mercy of a school board lawyer, these rules determine who can use the industry to go free. Freedom paid for is freedom nonetheless.

“I may just say we’re not gonna write Vance County anymore. Because that was a big hit,” Brown said. “That was the biggest bond I ever paid in 16 years.”

 

Seeking safety, victims of domestic violence go to court. But it’s not that simple.

Two women come before a judge seeking domestic violence protection orders. In one case, a woman alleges that her abuser is trying to get possession of the house. In the other, a woman claims that her partner has physically harmed her.  The judge denies a domestic violence protection order to the first woman but grants one to the second. 

The first woman is killed by her abuser. The second woman’s allegations turn out to be false.  

“I think I used to keep those [two complaints] on my wall because I think that you have to remember your gut instinct isn’t always your right instinct,” says Durham County Judge Nancy Gordon, who heard the two cases at a judge’s training in North Carolina in 2007. 

Domestic violence protection orders, known as a DVPO or 50B order, per the legal statute that created them, are the court’s way of requiring perpetrators of domestic violence to stay away from victims or face arrest. But obtaining an order is fraught with complications. 

Judges, prone to their own biases, act fallible. Nervous complainants sometimes file and withdraw their request several times. Victims must advocate for themselves despite frequently lacking legal experience. 

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Durham County courts have seen an influx of domestic violence cases, judges and prosecutors say. Even before the pandemic, increasingly sophisticated and discreet tracking technology made it easier for abusers to stalk their victims.

In 2020 North Carolina saw 61 homicides by intimate partners and 45 so far in 2021, according to the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“They all keep you awake at night,” says Gordon, referring to protective order cases. A stylish white streak of hair frames the face of the judge, first elected to the bench in North Carolina in 2006.

“If something is alleged and you don’t give somebody an ex parte order” — a temporary protective measure — “you look in the — I look — in the newspapers.” 

‘A drastic remedy’

A DVPO results from a civil filing by the victim. At the first hearing, the judge decides whether the defendant has committed an act of domestic violence based on what the plaintiff brings to the judge. The judge may issue an ex parte order, valid until the next hearing.

“That’s a pretty drastic remedy, “ Gordon says. “You could be kicking somebody out of their house. Where are they going to go? It’s Covid, so you have to think about what it is you’re doing.”

The plight of victims is often dramatic. But the bureaucratic grind of court obscures that turmoil. 

In the breezy, dimly lit Courtroom 5A, otherwise known as Durham County’s domestic violence court, Judge Doretta Walker asks each plaintiff, “Is everything in your complaint true?” 

“He comes over to my house. I don’t want him to get close to my children because he is very aggressive,” responds one woman in a leopard-print cardigan and low-rise pink pants. 

The woman uses an interpreter. The two huddle shoulder to shoulder at the corner of the bench far across the courtroom from Walker. 

“Anything else?” the judge asks.

“He tries to come looking for me. I don’t want him to get close to me.”

Walker grants the woman an ex parte order. 

To qualify under Chapter 50B, plaintiffs must show that someone currently or previously in their household has threatened, harassed, or actually injured them or their child.

On another recent afternoon in Courtroom 5A, a young woman dressed casually in jeans stands straight as a board before Gordon. Her round belly pushes against her burgundy T-shirt; she has two children and another is on the way. 

She explains to Gordon that her former roommate’s behavior drove her to call the police four times. The two once lived together, but the woman wants the man gone permanently from her apartment.

Each time, she says, the police told her that she must evict him.. 

His name is not on the lease, so Gordon advises the woman to, “keep a copy of the lease in the apartment and on you.” 

Before deciding whether to approve an ex parte order, Gordon also inquires about who can get the children from school. The woman says she has already taken the man’s name off the pickup list at her kids’ Early Head Start program. 

Gordon grants the order. 

‘What good would this do…?’

After an ex parte hearing,  both plaintiff and defendant — the alleged abuser — are expected to show up in court again together, usually within 10 days.

During the second hearing,  the defendant makes clear whether they’ll consent to the order. If the defendant does not agree to the DVPO, the judge will hold a trial to decide whether to keep the order in place. 

In Durham County District Court, plaintiffs frequently fail to show up for this second hearing. Often judges then dismiss the case. 

Judge James Hill says he is sympathetic to the plight of domestic violence victims. In fact, it has afflicted at least one member of his family. That relative entered and withdrew “three or four orders,” Hill says, and then finally followed through. 

But he dismisses cases when victims do not show. One day recently in his courtroom after a day of cases, Hill sat in his chair and waved an imaginary piece of paper, representing a protective order.  What good would this do against someone with a weapon, he asked.  

“Until the victim decides they want to do something, there’s not a whole lot we can do,” said Hill, 71, a retired jurist who now fills in as a substitute judge throughout the state. 

Many victims agree.

Melanie, a Triangle resident, says that she has a protective order out against her abuser. Still, she had to move from two different shelters because he found her.  

Now she also has a 6-month-old son to protect. The 9th Street Journal is not fully identifying her for her safety. 

“So honestly, the order of protection isn’t really helpful,” Melanie wrote in a Facebook message. “They go to court [and] get right out, especially if they have money, power, and resources.”

There are other incentives for individuals to seek a protective order.  To get a divorce in North Carolina, for example, a couple must be separated for one year, and to be considered separated, they cannot live together. A DVPO can force a spouse out of the residence, Gordon says.

In other words, the courts can be a theater to work out personal relationships.

“Unlike 100 years ago, they don’t send you to the church to work it out. They send you to the courts,” says Gordon, a family law attorney for more than two decades before being elected to the Durham County District Court. 

Meanwhile, Melanie tries to get herself back on her feet. She has reached out to a local mutual aid group asking for financial support. She says she does not want to be a burden to the community. 

 “It’s hard starting over, especially with a baby,” Melanie says.

PHOTO ABOVE: Durham County Judge Nancy Gordon says protective order cases “all keep you awake at night.” Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

Support beyond the court: A local non-profit’s work with homicide victims’ families

The murder victim’s mother rushes out of the bond hearing in tears. Marion Bailey hurries out after her. 

Bailey, a 74-year-old retiree wearing a bright purple sweatshirt and matching pants, convinces the distraught mom to sit on a bench outside courtroom 7D one recent morning at the Durham County Courthouse. Bailey holds the crying mother in her arms.

The mother has just heard Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. set bond for the man charged with murdering her son. The chief Superior Court judge ruled that the defendant had to pay  $150,000 to gain his freedom — frighteningly low, in the mother’s opinion.

Waiting in the hallway with a family friend is the deceased victim’s 8-year-old daughter. The girl watches her grandmother’s weeping, confused. 

“Grandmama just heard something that made her sad,” Bailey says to the little girl. “She’ll be all right in a minute.”

Bailey scoops up the child. Still sitting on the bench, she wraps one arm around the girl, the other around the murder victim’s mother. 

A Cold, Complex Process

Last year, 37 people were killed in Durham. Each homicide leaves behind grieving families. While the court system pursues justice, the care and support of these families is often left behind. 

Into that gap step people like Bailey, who works with the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.  Its volunteers use grief groups, vigils, and the simple power of their presence to guide relatives of homicide victims through what can sometimes be a cold and complex court process. 

After the violent death of her sister Elizabeth Watson, the first thing Teresa McCall wanted was justice: “You want to know how justice is going to work. You want to know how quickly this guy’s going to be arrested, how quickly the trial can occur, how things are going to happen so that at least you can get some closure to the process.”

Three years after her sister’s murder in July 2018, they finally have a trial date for November. McCall is “sitting on pins and needles,” hoping it will proceed as planned. 

There are currently 65 pending homicide cases in Durham County and 94 total defendants, says Sarah Willets, spokesperson for the Durham District Attorney’s Office. 

Homicides can take years to resolve. The mountain of evidence must be processed by a state crime lab, and the severity of the crime means numerous pre-trial motions. Prosecutors are sometimes reassigned and defendants change attorneys, causing further delays. Some cases remain open from 2015. 

Once the process begins, families realize the court system is not focused on their loss. At a quarterly administrative meeting designed to get all pending homicide cases before a judge, “Each case might only be discussed for a couple of minutes,” Willets says.  “The defendant may or may not be there. The family’s loved one’s name might never be said.”

The lack of attention to victims devastates families. “I just want someone to care and acknowledge who my sister was,” says McCall, whose sister was 59 when she was killed. 

Unlike defendants, who have an attorney to advocate for them, victims have no representation. Prosecutors represent the state, leaving victims’ families without a role and often without a voice. 

Victims’ families are guaranteed only one chance to speak in court — at sentencing. The D.A.’s office has tried to address this by holding quarterly sessions to meet with families and discuss the court process, but Willets recognizes it falls short.

“There’s still not room to support people in the way that they need and deserve. Because at the end of the day, our staff also has a job to do in which they have to remain objective,” Willets says. “There is still a need for something outside of the court process.” 

That’s why the Coalition assists, and advocates for, victims’ families.  

“When you cannot pick up the phone and call [your loved one], it is a deafening sound in your mind,” McCall says. “And then to further feel like it’s just a process what happened to them. It’s not okay. And the Coalition ensures that we know that it’s not just a process. They ensure that we know that this person that got taken through anger, through whatever reason, that they mattered.” 

Constant Contact 

The Coalition was founded in 1992 by civil rights activist Leslie Dunbar and Reverend Mel Williams in the wake of rising gun violence in Durham. A non-profit, it supports the formerly incarcerated as they re-enter society and facilitates restorative justice, an alternative to the traditional court process.  It also supports families of homicide victims through its vigil ministry. 

The vigil ministry helps families navigate a confusing and emotionally taxing legal system. Coalition members give families rides to the courthouse, attend meetings with them, accompany them to hearings, and help them to fill out paperwork and prepare for trial.

Bailey and three vigil team members also keep track of all the homicide cases traveling through the Durham County Courthouse. They take turns spending Monday, Tuesday, and sometimes Wednesday there, trying to keep up with the ever-mutating court calendar.  They do this mostly to keep families informed. 

“It’s probably a total of maybe 30 people that you gotta stay in constant contact with,” Bailey says. The team frequently informs families of developments in their case before the court does. 

But the vigil ministry’s work goes beyond the courtroom. 

When a homicide is committed in Durham, the team immediately uses its community networks to offer support to the family. After several months, they may organize a vigil for the lost loved one. Vigils provide a space for family and friends to gather, mourn, and celebrate the victim’s life. 

The Coalition also hosts grief support circles on the third Thursday of every month. Homicide victims’ families come and share how they are doing, discuss their challenges with the court system, and find comfort in a community of people who understand their unique loss. 

Not all families accept support right away. 

Michelle Hall, whose 34-year-old son, Tavares Hall, was murdered by a stray bullet in October 2018, was not ready when the Coalition first reached out. “But they are patient, and they’re very kind,” Hall says. “[Bailey] stayed in contact with me. And finally, I was able to join one of the [grief support] meetings, and it made such a difference.” 

The group’s power lies in the shared experience. “It’s a very lonely place to be when you don’t have people who can share in your pain,” McCall says. “It’s very, very lonely until you talk to someone who truly understands.” 

For Hall, a Durham County Library employee of 22 years, the grief circles are bittersweet because, despite the pain that brought them together, the group has formed a strong community of love and mutual support. 

“I never wanted to be a member of it,” says Hall, 56, now a Coalition board member. “But I’m a member for life.”

Marion’s ministry

Bailey’s 20-year-old grandson Javaun Graves was shot and killed in 2015. Graves was one of her nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Bailey was a volunteer with the Coalition prior, but after what she calls Graves’s “senseless murder,” she felt compelled to work with victims’ families. 

“I chose to dedicate myself to do anything I can to correct the system so my grandchildren have a chance at life,” Bailey says. “The ones that are still here.”

Bailey, who wears short gray curls and glasses, has a warm, comforting voice. But her dedication is fierce. Formerly an office assistant at North Carolina Central University, she has spent her retirement working tirelessly in the Durham community. The Coalition is just one of her many ministries. 

“When [people] say ‘I don’t know where I would be without the Coalition’…I think they are really talking about Marion,” says board member Susan Dunlap, who helps Bailey facilitate the grief groups.

Bailey is known for going the extra mile (literally) for homicide victims’ families. Once, “one of my guys was really upset,” and she drove all the way to Cary to comfort him. She takes phone calls in the middle of the night. She meets with school counselors to explain why a victim’s child may be struggling. She and the team deliver food to families in need. 

Bailey, who says she has no time for a significant other, remains in contact with all the families, even after their court case is resolved. McCall says, “Marion texts me all the time.” 

But she is most loyal to the mailman. She has already sent out 15 encouragement cards in October and is preparing her November batch. She sends cards to families around the anniversary of their loved one’s death, to honor missed birthdays, or to uplift anyone who needs extra care. 

The support goes both ways. After her three surgeries this year, “My families rallied around me. I got calls, I got cards, I got food, I got flowers.” Bailey says. “They stepped out of their own grief and their own worrying to sacrifice, to be sure I was OK.” 

“Marion gives us opportunites to take a breath,” McCall says. “She makes us feel like we belong to life.” 

PHOTO ABOVE: Teresa McCall, left, and Marion Bailey stand together at the 29th annual Vigil Against Violence, organized by the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. The Coalition supports families of homicide victims, and Bailey is one of its staffers. McCall’s sister was killed in July 2018.

Meet the Ward III Durham City Council candidates

Without an incumbent or primary results to signal a frontrunner, the Ward III Durham City Council race is the one to watch in the upcoming Nov. 2 election.

AJ Williams and Leonardo Williams are vying to fill the seat that will soon be vacated by Pierce Freelon, who was appointed in Aug. 2020 and decided not to seek another term. They didn’t face off in October’s primary because the top two vote-getters advanced to the general election, and there are only two candidates in the Ward III race.

Freelon endorsed AJ to replace him, but the candidates split the other major endorsements: AJ is backed by the People’s Alliance PAC, the Durham Association for Educators, and Durham For All while Leonardo is backed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham. 

The candidates who earned the support of the same groups as Leonardo — including Elaine O’Neal for mayor, DeDreana Freeman in Ward I, and Mark Anthony Middleton in Ward II —  emerged as clear frontrunners after the primary. Both Freeman and Middleton are incumbents. In the Ward III race, the odds are much less clear. 

Leonardo Williams, co-owner of the Durham restaurant Zweli’s, announced that he would be running for City Council in June, one day after Pierce Freelon said he would not run. Leonardo is a former chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and a former executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators.

AJ Williams joined the race later, on Aug. 3. He is a grassroots organizer in Durham, director of incubation and ideation labs for Southern Vision Alliance, and a member of Durham Beyond Policing and other abolitionist organizations.

In the Durham primary election earlier this month, voter turnout was relatively low, with only 10.18% of Durham’s registered voters going to the polls. Some residents said they saw very little difference between the candidates.  But the same can’t be said for AJ Willimas and Leonardo Williams. 

They differ not only in their policy ideas, but also in the lenses through which they see governing. Leonardo is an educator and a businessman at his core, so these are the lenses through which he understands community engagement. 

He said that small businesses’ struggles during the pandemic motivated him to run for City Council. Over the pandemic, though large companies were still drawn to downtown Durham, small businesses struggled. Leonardo helped establish the Durham Small Business Coalition, which raised $3 million for the Small Business Fund, and organized a citywide job fair that required participating employers to offer $15 per hour. 

“I said to myself, where is the small business representation in our government? Small businesses collectively are the city’s largest employer. How can we have a city full of small, locally-owned businesses, and not a single representation of them in any leadership or decision making capacity?” he said.

If elected, Leonardo hopes to establish a robust Small Business Sustainability and Success Program and expand the Office of Economic & Workforce Development to reflect Durham’s small business sector. He also plans to facilitate better wages and conditions for workers.

As a former teacher and school administrator, Leonardo also is focused on education in the city. He said that while the county funds education, the city shares responsibility for educating and engaging youth.

“It will be my job as a city councilman to ensure that we are engaging our youth at a much broader age and a much more inclusive way,” Leonardo said. “We can utilize sectors such as education and parks and rec and the local corporate scene, maybe even working with the chamber to establish a citywide apprenticeship program for juniors and seniors in high school.”

He said he views education as a public safety issue, too. He hopes that young men in Durham who are engaged in education and economic opportunities will be less likely to turn to gun violence. 

In September, Leonardo stood outside the Hayti Heritage Center with Councilmember Middleton and the group he co-founded, One Thousand Black Men. Its goal is to curb gun violence and change the trajectory of young Black men through mentorship by challenging 1,000 Black men in Durham to spend one hour each week with a young boy in their neighborhood. These are the kinds of initiatives he hopes to uplift if elected to City Council.

“I know that if I spend an hour a week with a young Black boy, as a professional Black man, I can have a positive impact on his life. And so if I asked 1000 Black men to join me, to step up and step in, let’s take this together, take accountability for what’s happening with our young brothers,” Leonardo said.  

AJ Williams approaches governing as a fourth-generation Durhamite with deep roots in the city — from his father’s journalism career, to his grandma’s work as a small business owner, to his participation in little league.  

In addition to working with Durham Beyond Policing, AJ was appointed to Durham’s Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee and collaborated with delegates across gender, age, class, race, and ability as well as staff from the Transportation Department and Budget and Management Services Department. He also has served financial roles on multiple BIPOC-led nonprofits.

AJ is genderqueer, and if-elected, would be Durham’s first transgender councilmember. He said he sees governing and organizing through a queer, Black, feminist, trans lens. He wants to listen to not just cisgender, heterosexual people in Durham.

“The Black queer feminist praxis is a part of so much of the work that I’ve done. And it basically tells us that we actually cannot have Black liberation unless we have liberation for all Black people,” AJ said. “So that has also heavily informed the way that I want to show up as an elected official. Really centering the voices of the most marginalized people in our communities who have been left out of the conversation is the way to do that.”

He said it was a natural progression to move from community organizing to running for City Council. If elected, he hopes to maintain the wins that the organizers achieved in the past few years, especially around community safety. As a member of Durham Beyond Policing, AJ was part of the push for Durham’s new Community Safety Department, which is working to address non-violent 911 calls with mental health services instead of police presence. 

“With organizing, particularly for things within our municipal budget, you need to know that you have the support of your elected,” AJ said. “Durham is shifting and changing in new ways, so it felt like a natural next step to be on the Council and get input from community members.”

AJ supports diverting funds away from law enforcement; creating new public safety institutions, such as Bull City Violence Interrupters, a community-led Safety & Wellness Task Force; and supporting other community-led abolitionist movements. He said he is determined to listen to what residents want, something he learned from his work with Durham Beyond Policing.

“We’ve had a budget hearing where we invited over 300 residents to come and participate and share their personal testimonies and stories — the ways that they were impacted by over policing. So, holding the spaces to hear folks has been something that’s always been really important to me as an organizer, and I think that that’s a transferable skill,” AJ said.

 After living in Durham his whole life and watching demographics shift as gentrification has risen in the city, AJ is concerned about affordable housing. He supports land trusts, protections for historically Black neighborhoods, and an eviction moratorium.

“We need to make sure that folks who are in the market to rent are able to live here, affordably, as well as those who are pursuing homeownership. We need to also support an expansion of the Long-time Homeowners Tax Assistance Program to protect people who have been here not just for decades, but generations,” he said.

AJ shares a background in filmmaking and art like his predecessor Pierce Freelon, who endorsed him. Freelon said the most important advice he ever got was from former mayor Bill Bell: to answer every email that he receives. It’s engagement in the community, Freelon said, that changes lives, whether it’s enacting historic city policies, or just responding to a resident about their broken door. 

This level of engagement is especially important to Freelon when interacting with gun violence victims in the community, and it will be necessary for his successor.

“That means something to me: being present in the community. The day after a shooting, you need to be there: knocking on doors and talking to residents in the communities that are experiencing the violence,” Freelon said. “If you’re going to be advocating for anything that impacts that community: the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

He said that when he does engage with community members, they are often surprised that he took the time to reach out and respond to their issues.

“This seat is different. You know, there’s something special in Ward III, and so whoever wins the seat will need to listen to residents,” Freelon said. “Whoever it is, they will be there to listen.”

***

Correction: This story was updated to correct that Leonardo Williams was a former chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and a former executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators.

Correction: This story was updated to correct the voter turnout rate in Durham’s primary election.

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check with us Election Day for updates and results. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: From left, candidates for Ward III Leonardo Williams (left) and AJ Williams – Photos by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

Reflections: Does courts coverage do more harm than good?

It’s the fourth week of school and I’m crying in my editor’s well-lit office. 

It’s nothing serious — I cry frustratingly easily, often about things that I’m mildly stressed about or invested in.  It’s involuntary and annoying. 

I’m crying in my editor’s office, across his honey-colored desk, because I want to leave the names out of my story, and he wants to leave them in.

I wrote the story about something I watched happen in traffic court, a moment of simultaneous justice and mercy in a place where seemingly mundane rules can transform people’s lives.

The judge sentenced a 30-year-old man to 10 days in jail for driving while impaired with a revoked license, despite his attorney’s plea that he’d been coping with the aftermath of his mother’s unexpected death. While security personnel sorted the man’s belongings and took him to jail, a college student read an essay about traffic school to the court. The judge dismissed the 19-year-old’s speeding and marijuana charges and sent him back into freedom with a “Good luck to you, sir.”

Stephen Buckley, my editor, gave me this working definition of journalism in a moment of crisis the week before: true stories for the public good. I scrawled it on an empty page in my notebook three pages before the traffic court scene went down.

If it were up to me, despite the 11 hours I spent in court this week, I’d have written nothing at all, I tell Buckley. I don’t think this story does much for the public good. I ask him if we can leave the piece unpublished or take the names out, and he says that’s not up to us to decide. Everything that happened in that courtroom is already public information. 

This point I still disagree with. Just because information is public doesn’t mean it’s ethical to amplify. I believe that in general, it might be a good thing that you have to visit the courthouse or pay a website to find a person’s dismissed charges. 

However, Buckley gently explains other important ways my thinking is wrong. I’m paraphrasing my impressions here because I didn’t take notes or record.

This is why you have to try to talk to people and not be a chicken, he says. (He doesn’t say the chicken part.) They might be completely game to talk to you for an article and you’re missing out on an important perspective — theirs. 

Also, you’re assuming readers will think the worst of the people in your story, he says. Have a little more faith in them. You actually paint this teenager in a good light. People won’t judge him just because the police charged him.

But because I’m guilty of skimming news articles and missing humanizing details, I’m skeptical of the reader.

It’s an easier and more straightforward process to clear your name in the courts than in the newsroom, at least in Durham. I think this might be because what the court sees as punishment, journalists see as information. Also, when you’re writing an article due at 11:59 p.m., it can be hard to imagine what it’ll be like for someone to have that story still tied to their name on Google in 30 years. 

Some newspapers deny unpublishing requests on principle, and some use nebulous criteria. Some will add an addendum about dropped charges but not alter an article’s original text. Editors often decide on a case-by-case basis.

In North Carolina’s courts, you fill out a form and pay $175 to clear your record of prior charges and convictions. There are how-to websites. You can get free legal assistance. The DA’s office itself has petitioned the court to do this for juveniles prosecuted as adults. 

Not everyone is eligible, but the 2020 Second Chance Act allows people a new legal start. They can erase from their record non-violent misdemeanors, dismissed or not guilty charges, and certain juvenile convictions.

“In a lower level case, having your arrest and your mugshot easily called up on Google anytime someone searches your name for the rest of your life might actually be a stiffer consequence than the crime itself,” said Sarah Willets, spokesperson for Durham’s District Attorney’s office. “That could follow you for far longer than any sentence that the law would allow.”

I went to Willets looking for expertise on the collateral damage of courthouse coverage because she’s had a foot in both journalism and prosecution. She worked as a crime reporter for years and now she manages communications in an office where prosecutors typically can’t comment to journalists.

Willets thinks the press play a vital role in the courts. But, she said, they could play that role more ethically.

“Are you going to follow through when you report on an arrest or a pending case? Are you going to follow through and say what the outcome was?” she said. “And if not, if it’s not worth following that case to the end, is there really a public interest in covering it?”

Consider whether you’re writing for the public good or just because a story’s kind of interesting, and someone might want to read about it, Willets said. I believe my story fell into the second category, even though I was hoping to write something of the first.

Willets told me she fought with her editors too. She wrote about a reentry program and one man’s experience leaving prison for her last story at Indy Week. She wanted to leave the man’s crime out, her editor wanted to leave it in. 

The city — Durham — had decided he should move on, she said. “And who are we to stand in the way of that?”

Her editor countered: that’s a big thing to conceal from readers. The editor won — the man’s conviction sits in the fifth paragraph of the published story online.

I left Buckley’s office thinking he too had won, that we would publish the story, and with names. But to spare me the stress, and because the primary goal of this class is to learn, not just to publish, he told me later that we wouldn’t.

Before I keep complaining about being a “student journalist” who doesn’t seem to want to publish any journalism, I’ll flash us back to last fall. I was among a crowd of protestors in head-to-toe black that set off fireworks outside Durham County jail. 

Earlier in their march they’d chanted, “News is cops, news is cops,” and blocked TV cameras with umbrellas. I’d chanted along the rest of the night, but in those moments I hesitated, not sure what to say.

I was in a news writing class at the time and thought I wanted to become an audio journalist.

Four days later I was back in journalism class and still thinking about it. If news is cops, should I be writing news? Can journalism avoid this?

A friend who was there that night graciously gave me some of their time on the phone. They told me a local TV station had posted mugshots of their friends arrested for protesting earlier that summer. Then those friends got doxxed, which means readers found and published their private information online, a particularly vicious revenge tactic. The news cost them.

My traffic court article was a different situation entirely. Buckley told me so while I objected, and he was right. But I do think about how what my peers and I write can reinforce the judgments of a broken criminal legal system.

How do we balance readers’ trust with future costs to our sources, costs exacerbated by internet longevity? Is every omission an effort to conceal? How do we minimize harm while maximizing the public good?

Willets gave me a few recommendations. In essence, she said, look for consent and context. Talk to the parties involved — especially victims — and make them understand how this story could follow them, she said. Situate the criminal case within the social issues forcing people to come to court, like lack of mental health care or community investment. Study the research around crime. Stick around and follow through.

This advice is hard to follow on deadline. Court cases can take forever: even the simple ones may drag on for months or years. 

Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi spent a year reporting Serial season 3, the podcast that inspired the creation of the 9th Street Journal’s courthouse reporting project. Each vignette they present from the Cleveland courthouse consists of months of interviews. Our vignettes, or “Courthouse Moments,” pan out over one week.

Maybe that’s where I land: I’m unwilling to do quick journalism, even if that means I won’t be employable in this field. Maybe one day newspapers will make different decisions about whether their quick news should last forever in its original form; maybe we’ll make unpublishing guidelines more transparent to the people we report on. 

I don’t think I’ve come to any solid answers. I have a feeling I’ll squirm closer to a conclusion in the coming years, talking through these conflicts with editors (and unfortunately probably after shedding a few more tears).

Photo Above: Lilly Clark, by Josie Vonk — The 9th Street Journal

In God they trust: A courthouse prayer group offers a mindful break

In the Durham County Courthouse, a courtroom is a place for trials, arguments and rulings. It’s where attorneys lose cases and defendants receive jail time, a place where people debate, cry and curse. But on Wednesdays from 12:45 to 1:00pm, one courtroom on the second floor becomes a sanctuary for the courthouse staff prayer group. 

To its members, the group is a safe haven – a mindful escape from the daily chaos of their jobs. 

Chief District Court Judge Pat Evans joined 15 years ago as an attorney. Today, she attends every meeting and leads most prayers. 

“It’s like our anchor,” Evans says. “In courts, we see a lot of stuff. It’s very traumatizing, but we always know that we can come here and be rejuvenated to finish the rest of the week.”

In court, God’s name is thrown around as a matter of procedure. Witnesses must place their hand on a Bible before they testify. They swear by God “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” but rarely with any religious conviction. The prayer group wants to put meaning back into these words.

It was started in 2001 by now-retired clerk Darlene Pate to unite the courthouse staff. Pate wanted to remind them of their shared faith and give them a space to reflect. 

Each week during their lunch breaks, judges, magistrates, translators and prosecutors borrow the courtroom of Clerk Archie Smith III —a judge and chief administrator in the courthouse— to host their prayer session.

One Wednesday, District Court Judge Doretta Walker comes from criminal court. She just finished ruling on an assault case. 

Courthouse interpreter, Maria Owens, comes from civil court. She spent the last half hour translating for a couple’s custody hearing. She mediated as a mother and father fought over their infant son.

Evans comes from traffic court, where she had a full docket. Her afternoon promises more of the same.

After half a dozen other staff members enter, they arrange the desk chairs from the lawyer’s tables into a rough semi-circle. Sometimes, they turn off the fluorescent lights, letting the afternoon sun spill through the windows. 

These adjustments convert the courtroom from a place of tension to a peaceful oasis.

A small printed packet guides the group. It provides a theme, a piece of scripture and a paragraph or two of insight. 

On October 6th, the theme is “helping one another.” 

“Encourage one another and build each other up… always strive to do what is good for each other,” one member reads. 

Then she asks each participant what they want to pray for.

Darrin Corbin, a District Court magistrate, mentions his stepfather who suffers from congestive heart failure. While Corbin is in this prayer meeting, his stepfather is in a hospital in New York.

Owens would like to pray for her mother-in-law, who recently suffered an aneurysm.

Evans echoes those prayers and adds one of her own: that people will vote in Durham’s municipal primary election. Then she leads a prayer. 

Eyes close and heads bow. Some people rock back and forth in their chairs. They nod, whisper prayers of their own, and hum on beat with the judge’s voice. Every few words, someone offers “yes, Lord” or “thank you, God.” 

When the session ends, participants linger, joking and catching up. They comment on each other’s outfits, especially those of the judges, who are rarely seen sans long black robes. 

“Love y’all,” they say while parting ways. 

In two decades, the group has almost never missed a meeting. It’s lasted through a building move, multiple retirements and now, a pandemic.

As COVID-19 raged through North Carolina, the courthouse stayed open, so the group continued to gather there. Numbers dwindled, but those who couldn’t come sent in prayers from home. Those who did come practiced social distancing. At each meeting’s end, in lieu of parting hugs, they took turns tapping elbows. 

“We never considered not meeting,” Evans says. “We didn’t sit up next to each other, but it was even more important that we gathered and prayed and sought God’s protection together.”

The prayer group is not publicized around the courthouse, but people from all departments show up. Though it is a Christian prayer group, all are welcome. And by gathering during their personal lunch breaks, Evans says, the group avoids any conflict between church and state.

On some weeks, the clerk’s courtroom is full, with a dozen staff filling the gallery. On others, three people may meet. 

Brittany Clinton, an assistant district attorney, started coming to sessions a few months ago. Like most new members, she heard about the group “through the grapevine.” 

In a job where uncertainty is guaranteed, the prayer group gives Clinton something to rely on.

“After we finish each session, it’s like a breath of fresh air,” she says. “It makes me feel a little bit lighter, like I can go ahead and make it through the rest of the day.”

Walker has attended prayer group meetings for over five years. She’s saved every printed packet, storing them in a drawer at home. 

“I like to pull them out and read them from time to time,” she says. “I can look back and see that my prayers have been answered.”

Evans has had her prayers answered too. For one, her husband, whose medical issues heighten the risks of severe illness from COVID-19, has stayed healthy throughout the pandemic. 

But a prompt in a recent meeting reminded her of one prayer she’s still waiting to see answered. “Think of something you’ve given up on,” it read. “Ask God to show you how He’s still working on it.”

For the past 30 years, Evans has prayed for the violence in Durham to stop. 

“Not to be curtailed, but to totally stop,” she says. 

Her criminal court docket is too long.

In 2020, a record-breaking 318 people got shot in Durham County, nearly a 70% increase from 2019. Though in line with gun violence trends globally, these numbers are hard for Durhamites to hear, especially those who work in the courthouse. 

In this meeting, Evans prays for something to change. After a moment of silent reflection, she unclasps her hands and stands up. Then she turns to Clinton, gives her a light elbow tap, and together they walk into the hallway.

“See you next week,” Evans says. 

 It’s not a question. It’s a promise.

At the top: A group of courthouse staffers meet in their Wednesday prayer group. Chief District Court Judge Pat Evans, seated in the back, often leads the group. Photo by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘It’s exhausting.’

Michael Ray Johnson, 34, has been waiting in jail for more than 200 days. Three years have passed since he broke into a woman’s home and assaulted her and her daughter, the mother of his son.

In this bond hearing on a recent Tuesday, Johnson sits in an airy Durham County courtroom, wearing long cream-colored sleeves beneath his orange uniform. He has almond-colored skin and cropped hair. He stares coolly ahead and sits mostly motionless and silent.  

Small groups of courthouse staff watch and whisper to each other, but the benches for people who aren’t paid to be here—defendants or victims or family—are mostly empty. 

After three years of delays, Crystal Smith, the mother of Johnson’s young son, doesn’t show up in court. And Lisa Fowler, the boy’s grandmother, who was once adamant about pursuing charges, isn’t there either. She is tired of waiting.

Fowler  “just says she doesn’t care what happens. It’s exhausting,” Assistant District Attorney Brooks Stone tells Judge Michael O’Foghludha. “She feels like her input is irrelevant, and it’s taking so long. This happened back in 2018.”

Since then, much has changed in Durham’s courthouse. Durham elected a new district attorney. A slew of prosecutors left; new ones picked up the stacks of files they left behind. The delays of a pandemic and busy DA’s office now keep worn-out victims and defendants alike in greater limbo than before.

According to the state, Johnson broke into Fowler’s home in June 2018. He entered through a window and tussled with Fowler and with Smith. He then ran outside, beat on Fowler’s Toyota Solara with a baseball bat, and then drove off. 

Fowler, her daughter and then-three-year-old grandson followed him outside. As Johnson drove off, neighbors heard gunshots. Police think Johnson was firing at Fowler, her daughter and grandchild. 

Smith dialed 911 that night. Now that she’s not interested in pressing charges, that call stands as her only testimony. 

The absence of Smith and Fowler could spell the end of Johnson’s case. Prosecutors don’t represent victims, but they do rely on them to testify. Domestic violence victims, in particular, are often uncooperative, Stone says. Johnson appeared in court on assault charges against Smith before, in 2017 and 2018, but the DA dismissed those charges because she didn’t show. 

Johnson’s files were swapped twice between DA’s. They first reassigned his case in September 2019, after six months without any hearings. His case was delayed again when the pandemic forced the courthouse to close for months. Finally, after 10 months without an appearance, Stone picked up his cases in July 2020, and Johnson got a new court date.

“His matters kind of got lost in the system,” Idrissa Smith, Johnson’s public defender, tells O’Foghludha. The lawyer gestures with his left hand and rests his right hand on Johnson’s shoulder. 

While Johnson’s case was postponed, he was free. But shortly after his case returned to the calendar, he missed a court date, and the police issued a warrant for his arrest. They picked Johnson up in February for illegal possession of drugs and jailed him for his failure to appear in court. He has remained in jail since.

The DA’s office postponed Johnson’s last three District Court dates for the drug charges without Johnson in the room, Idrissa Smith says. Durham prosecutors started automatically postponing cases to keep courtrooms uncrowded and prevent the spread of COVID-19. But they’re not supposed to do this to defendants in jail, Johnson’s attorney says. 

“At this point, keeping him in custody when you don’t really have witnesses is pre-trial punishment,” Idrissa Smith tells the court.

Because of the delays, the defense attorney hasn’t looked at the state’s evidence against Johnson in the drug case. 

 “I, as his defense attorney, have no clue what’s going on,” Idrissa Smith says, his voice echoing  through the room. He asks the judge to release Johnson and put him on house arrest, but the judge denies the motion. 

The state keeps Johnson in jail for another two weeks until Oct. 5, when he agrees to a plea deal. He will get credit for his time in jail and serve 15 to 27 months total for eight felonies. The waiting — for everyone — is over.

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘This is not a swastika. This is the opposite.’

 

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.