On the night of Friday, March 11, Jayna Murray and Brittany Norwood both entered a well-trafficked Lululemon Athletica clothing store in the tony suburb of Bethesda, Md., where they both worked. They'd returned there after hours because Norwood had left her wallet.
The following morning, Murray was dead and Norwood was found tied up in the back of the store, which specializes in yoga apparel. Police said both women had been raped. The crime terrified the Bethesda community, which feared that two brutal killers were in their midst. Stores shuttered early; proprietors installed security cameras in their businesses and hired security guards to walk employees to their cars at night.
Then the real-life murder mystery took a surprising twist: On March 18, police charged the second victim, Norwood, who is African American, with the murder of Murray, who was white. It's a story that national media, from Good Morning America to the Daily Beast, quickly jumped on as speculation rose from all corners about the primary facts and motivations in the crime. But there are a few angles that have not yet been discussed.
That Sort of Thing Doesn't Happen Here
Reward money was quickly raised (and is now being returned), with the founder of Lululemon adding $150,000 to the pot. Local merchants and individuals also chipped in. Why? Because Bethesda is one of the most affluent suburbs in the D.C. area, and its shopping district is tailored to engage the wealthy in a shopping-and-lifestyle experience. On the adjacent street to Lululemon and the Apple Store, there is a EuroMotorcars dealership specializing in Mercedes, Bentleys and Maybachs.
The violent crime wasn't only terrible in its own right — it was bad for business. Both residents and merchants were looking for a way to return their lives to their accustomed level of safety and tranquillity. The large outpouring of support is also notable — in addition to a candlelight vigil, many passersby left bouquets at the front door of the store to express their sorrow at the tragedy.
The Yoga Community Is Built on Trust
The triumph of trust over skepticism is amazing to watch, but in many ways, it is indicative of the yoga community in the D.C. area. Immediately, local yoga-studio owners and friends of Lululemon expressed condolences for both women — and were equally stunned when police charged Norwood with the crime.
Slate pondered the rates of random murder versus acquaintance murder and concluded that prosecutors should have looked to Norwood all along. But police did not immediately suspect Norwood, perhaps, as they have said, because they were following protocol: listening to the alleged victim of a sexual assault and taking her claims seriously during the investigation. But perhaps they, too, were lulled into a sense of trust engendered by the peace-and-love yoga community, of which Lululemon was a part.
As a business, Lululemon, a Canada-based chain, focuses on selling athletic wear (including yoga-specific clothes and accessories) and provides free yoga classes and monthly run-club meet-ups. Like other big-name yoga-apparel companies, from Prana to Be Present, Lululemon brands itself as a good citizen, a steward of the environment and other do-good causes.
The culture of community and trust runs deep. No one would ever have suspected that an environment that fostered yoga, complete with candlelight practice and smiling yoginis, could have also fostered a crime. After all, one can debate if $100 yoga pants are worth stealing. But killing someone over them? (Norwood is alleged to have stolen merchandise from the shop; police said that Murray confronted her about the theft.)
Of Rape and Crying Wolf
Norwood's story revolves around two masked men entering the store, sexually assaulting both women, then murdering Murray before tying up Norwood. Police pursued forensic and investigative measures before ultimately shifting the focus to Norwood.
Rape allegations are complicated in our society, particularly when connected with other fault lines of race and class. Many women never report rape or sexual assault, fearing that they, too, will find themselves on trial. Rape and sexual assault statistics are horribly difficult to quantify — it is estimated that 60 percent of sexual assault victims never report the crime, and 15 out of 16 rapists will never do time for their crimes. This discourages most rape survivors from seeking legal action.
Most sexual assault cases fly under the publicity radar. But there are a handful of high-profile cases that haunt any woman who wants to come forward and accuse her attacker. (The Tawana Brawley and Duke lacrosse cases come to mind.) Media outlets generally have a field day with high-profile allegations of rape — think the decades-old case involving director Roman Polanski — and even more so when the story doesn't hold up in a court of law. The pervasive idea that a woman would lie about sexual assault is already embedded in the minds of many; anything that does not match the elevated burdens of proof facing women bringing a sexual assault case becomes fodder to dismiss and demean other women.
At the moment, Norwood has only been charged with the crime — she has not been convicted or sentenced. Not all the facts have been revealed, and the only statement on record is that of the prosecutor. However, the forensic evidence released by the police paints a disturbing picture, and one that appears to indicate that there were never two men in the building. The trial will reveal even more details, but what will this mean for women who are sexually assaulted at work? Will the same benefit of the doubt be given to them — or will they be tried in the court of public opinion?
On Race and Class
Mercifully, this is one occasion when people didn't jump to any conclusions based on the skin color of the women involved. Murray, whose Facebook memorial page shows a smiling, fitness-focused blonde, was murdered. Norwood, whose sole photo reveals a young, brown-skinned woman with curly hair, was the first to tell her tale.
Possibly, the racial angle didn't compute for most people in the face of the stunning facts being revealed about the crime. Most people were probably too frozen trying to arrange a plausible motive for murder. While a few comment cesspools brought up the racial angle, most readers were shocked and dismayed at the brutality of the crime, which resulted in a life allegedly taken over a petty dispute.
Jill Kolakowski, 36, of nearby Chevy Chase, said she's been inside Lululemon and even thought Norwood looked familiar when she saw her on the news. The killing was striking because it seemed so random, she said.
"How much of a relief is it really when it could be a woman who babysat your children or a woman who sold you workout clothing?" Kolakowski asked.
Interestingly, though, both class and race had an indirect hand in why this story made national headlines. Slate touches on this: "The media does its part, of course. Murders don't typically make headline news, unless there's something unusual about them — for example, that they occur in an upper-middle-class suburb. (Slate's Timothy Noah calls this genre of news coverage 'When Bad Things Happen to White People.')"
Over and over again, media reports played up the fact that violent crime was an anomaly in Bethesda. And it's true — the suburb, located in one of the country's wealthiest counties, has a lower rate of both property and violent crime than the surrounding areas and many other areas in the nation.
But what makes this crime more impressive to the media gaze? Initial reports circumvented the normal "missing/dead white girl" angle by publishing pictures only of Norwood, the assumed sole survivor, with relatively few images of Murray to be found. So class was a primary motivator for the initial reporting, and why the story got so much coverage. As one astute reader points out in the Washington Post's Opinions section:
The Post has given not even perfunctory coverage to the slaying of Jacinta Ayala, a Mexican immigrant killed before daylight March 18 at the Burger King in Frederick, where she worked. The Post did not identify her in a brief about her death and didn't bother with a follow-up in the first few days afterward.
The lack of attention paid Ayala's death is striking. The two crime scenes are less than 40 miles apart … I'd like to think socioeconomic factors don't influence the way you cover news.
But Post columnist Robert McCartney makes some interesting inferences in his column:
The Lululemon case initially aroused so much anxiety in part because it might confirm Bethesda's biggest fear, that its gradual urbanization would inevitably be accompanied by a rise in crime.
Although the heavy foot traffic along tree-lined streets is a plus for businesses and residents alike, it also risks attracting a bad element. The combination of Metro access (on the Red Line), luxury stores and crowds of well-heeled patrons could make the area a target for criminals.
Is that "bad element" truly a young, athletic woman who worked at Lululemon? Was it a group of homeless people who helped stab a man at Suburban Hospital? (In that case, it was actually another example of workplace rage, Bethesda's only other on-the-job homicide in 2011.) Or is what McCartney calls "urban danger," a polite euphemism for something else — and will the creeping shadow of "urban danger" start manifesting itself in ways like racial or economic profiling?
Despite the many ways we can examine this case, it is important to remember that Jayna Murray's murder was senseless and tragic. Her family has expressed their full faith in the U.S. justice system to ensure that truth will prevail. For those of us following the proceedings, we would be well-advised to do the same.
Latoya Peterson is the editor of Racialicious.com and a frequent contributor to The Root.
Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist, anti-racist activist and deputy editor of Fusion’s Voices section, opining on pop culture, news, video games and everything that makes life worth living.