DURHAM — A judge will review search warrants, an autopsy report and 911 calls in the Faith Hedgepeth murder case before deciding whether to unseal any or all of them.
Hedgepeth, a 19-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill student, was found killed in her apartment at Hawthorne at the View on Old Durham Road in Chapel Hill on Sept. 7, 2012. Police have not arrested anyone or said how she died.
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning did not say when he would review the file or when he might make a decision, but he ordered the clerks office to gather and log in chronological order all the documents relating to the sealing of the documents.
Hugh Stevens, attorney for The News & Observer and other media organizations challenging the seal, argued that it’s been 18 months since Hedgepeth was killed and the public does not know anything about the case.
The Durham County district attorney’s office filed a motion to extend the seal on the documents, but in the motion, it revealed the Chapel Hill Police Department prepared search warrant affidavits for two apartments at 5639 Old Durham Road, a 1977 Honda Accord, the Facebook accounts of Hedgepeth and her roommate Karena Rosario, the laptop computers of Hegepeth and Rosario and Hedgepeth’s bank account.
During the hearing in Durham County Superior Court Wednesday morning, Stevens argued that the search warrants affidavits and the results of the search, the 911 calls and the autopsy reports are public record, and the state has to give compelling reasons why the items should remain under seal.
In a search warrant affidavit, the law enforcement officer gives specific reasons as to why a search must be conducted. Often those affidavits give out detailed information about the crime and the crime scene. They are not public record before the search, but once the search has been conducted, the law enforcement agency files a copy at the court clerk’s office along with a list of items seized, and they become public record.
The reasons a document can be sealed include protecting the integrity of the investigation, protecting the victim or witnesses, confidential informants and other innocent people who are not part of the investigation.
Breaks in investigation
Assistant District Attorney Charlene Coggins-Franks argued that unsealing the items and allowing the press and the public to view them would jeopardize the investigation.
There have been recent breaks in the investigation, she said. The police and the State Bureau of Investigation are still intensely investigating the case and have a list of more than 90 tasks they have to complete in the investigation, she said.
“It’s not that it ‘might’ hinder this investigation,” she said. “It ‘will’ hinder the investigation.”
Hedgepeth’s parents attended the hearing, and Franks said even they haven’t heard details about their daughter’s death, but they support keeping the files sealed.
“The most important thing to them and the State of North Carolina is to find the killer of their baby girl,” Franks said.
Stevens asked what makes the Hedgepeth case so unusual that the search warrants are treated differently than any other case where they are made public.
The state has not given compelling reasons why everything should remain sealed, he said. If there are parts of the warrants that specifically meet the criteria, then those parts could be redacted and the rest of it made public, he said.
“Take a look at what’s in that envelope and what’s in there that has to be sealed,” Stevens said to Manning. “Unseal them completely or provide it to the public in a redacted form that protects the portion of the record you find that meets that compelling standard.”
Unsealing some of the records might help investigation because someone might learn some information that makes them realize they might have information that could help police, he added.
The other media outlets asking at Wednesday’s hearing that the items be unsealed included The Daily Tar Heel and Capitol Broadcasting Co., which includes WRAL-TV, WRAZ-TV, WRAL-FM and WCMC.