Chapel Hill: Opinion

July 28, 2014

The murder of a popular professor shakes Chapel Hill

A popular UNC professor is killed, and Chapel Hill grieves in disquiet

Feng Liu had a family, a good job as a research professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Pharmacy and a legion of friends and admirers. He was, in short, a man in full whose work was contributing to advancements in research that helped people, and found time for working as well at being a good husband and father.

What a good and noble life it was.

And in an instant, this past Wednesday, this accomplished man was, police say, hit in the head with a rock and robbed. He died Thursday. Two men are in custody charged with first-degree murder. Both have long arrest records.

Liu was just taking a lunchtime walk in Chapel Hill, from which his colleagues expected to see him return with a smile and renewed energy.

The randomness of this death has the Chapel Hill community in shock magnified by grief. And many felt a tragic irony.

Liu was dying as Laurence Lovette was on trial in Durham for the robbery and murder of Abhijit Mahato, a Duke University graduate student found shot to death inside his apartment in 2008. He was previously convicted of the murder of Eve Carson, the UNC-Chapel Hill student body president who was kidnapped, robbed and murdered, also in 2008.

Senseless crimes, all of them. And with some eerie coincidences: One of the men arrested in Liu’s murder, Troy Arrington Jr., was supposed to be wearing an electronic ankle bracelet as a monitor instead of being in jail as part of a pre-trial release program. And Lovette and Demario James Atwater, the men convicted in Carson’s death, were supposed to be under the watch of the probation office in Durham.

The first instinct in response to those facts is to say that the justice system has serious problems with oversight of criminals who are not incarcerated, and those problems must be addressed with urgency.

And the second, broader reaction is to question how the state, or local authorities, can better track convicted criminals who are likely to act again once their sentences are up and they are free, even for a short while. Clearly, the state must put more money and energy and tighter organization into its probation and parole program. Improvements have been made, following the attention given the Carson case.

But this tragedy would seem to spotlight a need for even closer supervision and followup.

There is such a stark contrast here in the lives lost and the lives that caused them to be lost. Liu was a scientist training others to make a contribution to their society and their world. He was a hopeful, bright man with a measure of optimism and grace. The men charged with killing him, and they are presumed innocent until proven guilty, seem to have been just the opposite, with young lives so far, at least, devoted to crime, to contributing nothing.

Yes, their backgrounds, and those of Lovette and Atwater, are doubtless far different from the backgrounds of their victims and alleged victims. But that explanation doesn’t explain and certainly doesn’t justify the violence that resulted in productive lives lost when strangers invaded someone else’s home, homes where people were just doing their daily work.

It will be some time before the Chapel Hill community recovers any sense of safety and certainly any sense of calm. For those who knew and loved Feng Lui, that time will be forever.

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