Daily Tar Heel, other media file motion to unseal records in student's death investigation

Updated 3/8/2014 to add comments from News & Observer editor John Drescher.

NORTH CAROLINA — The Daily Tar Heel, backed by several other local media organizations, is fighting to unseal search warrants and other records in a 2012 student death case.

This week, DTH Media Corp., Capitol Broadcasting Company, the News and Observer Publishing Company and WTVD, an ABC affiliate, filed a motion to unseal records in a case involving a UNC student who died in 2012.

In the motion, the media outlets argue that officials’ attempts to keep the records sealed have been based on insufficient or incomplete explanations of the “compelling government interests” in support of sealing. Some of the sealing orders were also “grounded, at least in part, on speculation” because they appear to have been issued before the search warrants were served or carried out, according to the motion.

The records in question here are “one or more search warrants,” 911 recordings and other records related to the death of Faith Hedgepeth, who was found dead in her apartment during her junior year at the University of North Carolina. (It’s unclear how many search warrants have been issued, the motion clarifies.)

Search warrants and other records were sealed three days after her death, according to The Daily Tar Heel, and local officials have continued to reseal them in the years since.

“It’s like clockwork,” The Daily Tar Heel wrote in a recent story on district attorney Leon Stanback’s repeated attempts to keep the records closed. (Editor Nicole Comparato could not be reached for comment.)

To attorney Mike Tadych, who filed the motion on the media outlets’ behalf, the arguments in favor of keeping the records sealed lose additional weight with the passing of time.

“If somebody was fleeing, they could’ve been around the world several times,” Tadych said.

This isn’t the first time that sealed records have stalled reporters’ — and, in turn, the public’s — access to details about student death cases, Tadych said. After UNC student Eve Carson was murdered in 2008, law enforcement also initially sealed documents related to the high-profile investigation that followed.

When officials finally agreed to open the records, Tadych noted, the reasons for doing so became more clear. Initially, Tadych said, the nature of Carson’s injuries were “not generally known,” and keeping the records sealed at the beginning therefore “allowed a capacity for law enforcement to vet the veracity of someone telling them about this particular crime.”

Had law enforcement been more forthcoming initially about the reasons for keeping the documents sealed, Tadych said, he might have advised media outlets pursuing the records to delay their efforts to unseal the records.

In any case, these conflicts between transparency and secrecy during major investigations have presented ongoing challenges, and efforts to get law enforcement to reconsider their position on sealed records haven’t been limited to the courtroom, Tadych said. He’s tried to “start a dialogue” with the district attorney and other officials — stressing the common interest between the media organizations and law enforcement officials in finding those responsible for students’ deaths, for example. But so far, he said, “that particular dialogue is slow-going.”

In general, Tadych said, the motivation for aggressively pursuing secrecy in certain cases above others is not entirely clear.

“I really don’t understand the dynamic other than, perhaps, with high-profile or greater interest in a particular crime, law enforcement may be worried about scrutiny on the handling of matter,” he said. “If it’s the homeless guy found in the park dead, I don’t see them running to seal autopsy reports and search warrants.”

John Drescher, The News and Observer’s executive editor, added that the lack of charges in the case indicates that “investigators are struggling.” But keeping so many of the details out of public view is doing little to help advance the investigation, he said.

“In this case, 18 months out, law enforcement has sent conflicting signals. They’ve told people, ‘If you have information, please tell us,’” Drescher said. “But that’s not going to be effective unless you give people more information about the case.”

Officials from the Durham District Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment as of Thursday afternoon.

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