I never knew Faith Hedgepeth. I was never graced with her warm smile, nor was I familiar with the optimistic spirit and joy she brought to those who remember her. Yet, from Cape Town, South Africa, news of her September 2012 murder moved me. More disturbing than the shocking few details that were revealed about the crime was my presupposition of how the investigation would be carried out by Chapel Hill law enforcement. I feared that, as a woman of color, justice for her life would be a slow and arduous process.
More than a year later, I am disappointed and sadly unsurprised by the merit in my prediction.
On its own, the history of marginalized communities in the United States reflects a deeply rooted and persistent failure of the criminal justice system to uphold standards of equality and retribution for crimes committed against them. However, when gender is a factor at play in the investigation of a crime, the gears of justice seem to turn ever slower and in favor of male perpetrators of victims who hold certain identities. For women of color who navigate the American system of retributive justice, the intersections of race and gender are more than contemporary complications. They reflect a historical context of compounded racial and gender marginalization through apathetic treatment from law enforcement.
When one considers the often gendered nature that describes the crimes of rape, sexual assault, and violent homicide, critical social analysis would suggest the presence of male privilege and perceived male entitlement to the female body as motivation for such actions. Yet, these cases are tried in a predominantly male court system, and often with an investigation of the female victim. Rather than exploring and challenging the crime committed against the woman, the patriarchal system instead fixates on the propriety of the woman in her dress and recreational activities. This trend is not only reflective of the legacies of historically masculine standards of women’s roles, but continues to support the neutralization of the autonomy of women as independent actors.
The casual nature with which the United States criminal justice system approaches marginalized identities intensifies with the consideration of race. The history of communities of color in America, and particularly throughout the Jim Crow era, describes sincere indifference toward crimes committed against black and brown bodies. Gruesome public lynching, execution-style homicides at gunpoint, burnings, and bombings met white male juries, prejudiced judges, and mock trials heard with impunity for guilty perpetrators.
What is so critical about the power of the legal system is that it not only sets the standard for crime and punishment, but it also dictates social views and values. When certain groups are historically and especially mistreated by the law, society is left to interpret that message as a mandated human hierarchy. If the law conveys that women of color are subject to poor treatment in the justice system, society will mirror that devaluation of black and brown women by continuing in the mindset and performing the actions that subject women to the criminal justice system in the first place.
Furthermore, for women of color who are left to navigate justice in the American system, the intersections of their race and gender compound into an experience that highlights a certain privilege for victims of crime in majority groups. Our own Chapel Hill community has been a witness to this phenomenon in the disparate treatment of the crimes against the Native American Faith Hedgepeth and the white Eve Carson. Consider that while Eve Carson’s investigation drew multiple state agencies and saw suspects arrested 9 days after the crime following a high-profile community-inclusive search for information, Faith Hedgepeth’s case continues to lie in the sole jurisdiction of the Chapel Hill police department, which has revealed precious little details in a year since the incident. While the Carson family benefited from the closure of seeing their daughter’s killer brought to justice in the span of a year, the Hedgepeth family lives in a state of constant irresolution.
In no way is this a suggestion that the justice received in the homicide of Eve Carson was undeserved or unfair. In fact, the means by which Eve Carson received her due justice serve as a model of the criminal justice system working fairly and with its true intention. Yet this same model has failed when it comes to Faith Hedgepeth. The Eve Carson case ought to be the standard for every woman and every victim of injustice, not a privilege afforded a select few as a result of their color and socioeconomic status.
In totality, this is not a story about Faith Hedgepeth. This is not a story about her tragic homicide over a year ago. This is not a story about how few details have been released or determined by Chapel Hill law enforcement. This isn’t a story about how a year has passed with little news or hope for her family and friends.
This is not a story about Eve Carson, either. This is not a story about her tragic homicide and the details that were released about her potential perpetrator within days of the crime. This is not about how, over a year later, Eve Carson’s perpetrators were arrested, charged and convicted of their crimes.
This is a story about the loss of faith that communities of color are having in a system that is sworn to protect them. This is about the devaluing of bodies of color and the undermining of humanity that communities of color and the women within them are forced to endure, historically and to this day. Finally, this story is a wake up call for our legal systems and law enforcement to treat every Faith Hedgepeth like Eve Carson—to be truly just and eternally gender-neutral and color blind.
Alayah Glenn is a senior double majoring in African, African-American, & Diaspora Studies and Public Policy.