After hearing, judge will determine whether to keep records sealed in UNC student's death investigation

NORTH CAROLINA — The media organizations looking to unseal records in a Chapel Hill homicide case are still waiting for a judge’s ruling on the issue, but a hearing Wednesday did shed some additional light on the investigation.

In 2012, Faith Hedgepeth was found dead in her apartment during her junior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Several days after her death, authorities sealed search warrants and other records — and they’ve continued to keep the records closed ever since, according to The Daily Tar Heel.

Earlier this month, several media outlets — DTH Media Corp., Capitol Broadcasting Company, the News and Observer Publishing Company and WTVD, an ABC affiliate — filed a motion to unseal records related to the investigation into Hedgepeth’s death.

On Monday, Assistant District Attorney Charlene Coggins-Franks filed a motion to extend a seal on search warrants, 911 calls and other records related to the investigation. Coggins-Franks also responded to the media organizations’ attempt to unseal the records, arguing that unsealing the records could “undermine and hinder and hamper the investigation and jeopardize the state’s right to prosecute the perpetrator.” Releasing the information could also jeopardize the potential defendant’s right to a fair trial, Coggins-Franks wrote.

Mike Tadych, the media organizations’ attorney, said that Judge Howard Manning framed their central argument before Tadych had a chance to make it: The records in question are presumed to be public, so the question here is, what’s different about this case that would override that “presumption of openness?”

“The notion is, to our knowledge, nobody has articulated what is different between the search warrants in this case and other search warrants in the 22 other murders in Durham County in 2012,” Tadych said.

Manning asked for all of the documents related to the case to be gathered in one central location, Tadych said. Once “the universe of documents” are gathered, Manning will review them to decide whether a “compelling government interest” exists to keep them sealed. It’s not clear how long it will be until he issues a ruling.

While the hearing didn’t result in immediate access to the records, Daily Tar Heel City Editor Jenny Surane said it did provide some previously unknown details about the investigation. Officials said there have been several breaks in the case that would be compromised by releasing the records and also provided more details about what specifically was sealed, Tadych and Surane said. Such developments were not made public before this week.

Still, the stark contrast between the transparency in this case and others was apparent. Surane said police send regular updates about crimes like hit-and-run incidents in which they release plenty of details so the media can relay that information to the public, and the public might in turn help with the investigation. In this case, officials have been markedly more tight-lipped.

“I don’t know why, in some cases, we can be used as this vehicle for educating the public and helping police and, in other cases, we can be hurting case and detrimental to the investigation,” Surane said.

And after 18 months, Daily Tar Heel Editor-in-Chief Nicole Comparato said she’s left wondering: How much longer will this go on?

Comparato pointed out that a Daily Tar Heel story published this week also suggested that police didn’t request key video evidence in the case. Police wouldn’t comment, citing the ongoing investigation, but the owner of a local towing company that maintains cameras in an area where Hedgepeth was seen shortly before her death said police never reached out to request footage.

As “watchdogs of the community,” she said, The Daily Tar Heel and other journalists know that many are concerned with what happened to Hedgepeth — and getting more details about the investigation into her death is crucial to keeping the community informed.

“This case really should make a statement that this is public information and this should be available.” she said.

By Casey McDermott, SPLC staff writer. Contact McDermott by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.