Durham News: Opinion

May 15, 2014

Gaspo: Slow justice is no justice in Hedgepeth, Huerta cases

ESPN has a show called “Numbers Never Lie.” Well, that depends on how you use them, where you get them, and which you leave in or take out.

ESPN has a show called “Numbers Never Lie.” Well, that depends on how you use them, where you get them, and which you leave in or take out.

Some numbers are hard to manipulate. Days, months, years. Those are the numbers that concern me: a series of numbers in our community that point to slow justice, a low level of justice, or no justice at all.

I got to thinking about this recently when I went back to see when Superior Court Judge Howard Manning held a hearing about whether search warrants, the autopsy report and other records in the Faith Hedgepeth murder case should be unsealed.

Hedgepeth was the 19-year old UNC-Chapel Hill student found dead in her apartment in Chapel Hill, just inside Durham County. The highly publicized case, after 20 months, remains unsolved.

It took the Chapel Hill police, a small department, slightly more than one year to ask for the SBI’s investigative help on what quickly became a complex case. One year. My information is that the case is still not close to resolution, nearly eight months after the SBI was finally asked to step in.

And when was Judge Manning’s hearing? It was March 19 of this year. So now, a judge has taken close to eight weeks just to decide whether the records should be made public so people can see some of what’s been done to solve a homicide that happened in the fall of 2012.

This, on a case where the murderer could still be around the area, even been a fixture on the UNC campus since the crime occurred. An FBI profile maintained the murderer was familiar with the victim.

A murder investigation involving public resources – and the public’s safety – continues to operate in almost total secrecy, coming up on two years since it happened. In an open society, that’s a misuse of the justice system.

In the Hedgepeth case, a DNA analysis by the SBI lab happened unusually fast – just a few months. But on average these days, I’ve learned that it takes almost two years to get a DNA analysis done. Prosecutors in both the Durham County and Orange County DA’s OfficeS gave me that figure. Two years.

There are a myriad reasons, ranging from state budget decisions, to analysts leaving, to a sharp increase in demand from local law enforcement. None suffices. Two years is too long to potentially keep an investigation hampered, to keep an accused party waiting, to keep victims and families wondering.

Huerta investigation

I sought more numbers. I asked the Durham Police Department why, after about six months, it has yet to finish up its internal investigation of Officer Samuel Duncan, in whose patrol car 17-year old Jesus Huerta is believed to have shot and killed himself while handcuffed with his hands behind him. The gun, if in Huerta’s possession, should have been found in a search. Roughly 24 weeks have passed, without judgment.

I was told the internal investigation is not done because the DPD is waiting on the SBI part of the probe to be done. The SBI has been looking for a long while now at whether there is any criminal culpability.

Meanwhile, I’m told, Officer Duncan is still being paid to report for work and do administrative duties. Working with a taxpayer-financed salary he continues to draw pay period after pay period since that disastrous November overnight that ended with a teenager dying.

Should have known better

I also took note of the late April announcement that seven Durham Police Department employees had been disciplined for making off with various parts of guns the department had confiscated in cases. The group reportedly included a captain, lieutenant and two sergeants. Chief Jose Lopez said they should have known better.

This investigation took almost one year. Why would that take so long to complete?

There are other numbers that raise questions: the amount of punishment. The total hours of unpaid department suspension for the seven transgressors was 208 hours. That averages out to fewer than four days of punishment per person. Four days. For police employees fooling with guns that weren’t theirs.

All these numbers add up. They say something important and troubling about justice around here, on many fronts. Don’t hold your breath waiting for it.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-19-0042

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