Angel Bumpass's Face Wasn't "Soft Enough" to Avoid a 60-Year Prison Sentence

A Black woman from Tennessee named Angel Bumpass was convicted of murder in a case you probably haven't heard much about.

Watching a young Black girl go through the pain and horror of the criminal justice system in 2021 must be what it was like to have been a free Black American during the bondage years. 

Not enough people know about the story of Angel Bumpass even though her grave injustice was recorded and replayed on A&E’s show “The Accused.”  

The tragic tale starts in 2009 when Angel was 13-years-old, after a woman called 9-1-1 and reported that she had found the lifeless body of her husband, Franklin Bonner, Duct taped to a chair in their living room in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Franklin Bonner was in his mid-sixties at the time of his murder. Angel Bumpass was, again, 13-years-old and in the eighth grade.

The case went cold after a police investigation. 

Then in 2017 Angel was arrested for failure to appear in court for a speeding ticket. On “The Accused,” Andrea Hayduk, one of the attorneys working Angel’s case, says, “She was fingerprinted and her fingerprints matched some prints that were taken from the Duct tape from the crime scene. She was arrested for felony murder.” 

Angel Bumpass’s mother, Tamika Bumpass gave birth to Angel in 1995. When Angel was six years old Tamika was incarcerated for shooting a police officer when she was attempting to escape from custody while being transported from one jail to another facility. Angel was raised by her grandparents and left their home at sixteen based on what she described as a cold and unloving environment. 

Angel’s trial was tapped for A&E in 2019 when she was 23-years-old. At the time she wore braces, her voice was soft and shy, and she juggled studying as a nursing student and caring for her two very young girls. During a break in the trial, she told the A&E producers that she was frustrated with her legal representation. She said that she felt as if her lawyers were too nice, and they were. At one point the prosecution refers to Angel’s co-defendant, a man named Mallory Vaughn, someone that Angel had never met a day in her life, as her “buddy” that she assisted in robbing and killing someone, despite him being grown and her being in the eighth grade.

There was no objection from Angel’s attorneys. 

After five hours of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty for Mallory Vaughn, who allegedly confessed to the robbery and murder to a cousin of his who testified on the stand to his guilt. 

Angel Bumpass was found guilty and sentenced to sixty years in prison. 

While the jury was in deliberation Angel broke down and said, “I have to sit in court with people I’ve never met, about victims I’ve never met. Like, how?” It’s at this point as I’m watching this case unfold that I am completely attuned to Angel's whole mind, heart and soul. This is the level of absurdity that Black women are forced to constantly navigate.

The biggest piece of bullshit is that we are expected to navigate these levels of injustice and outright emotional abuse with a smile. 

Now it’s not fair or just to judge a jury’s decision. So I won’t. I understand that all a jury can do is return a fair verdict based on the evidence presented to them. However, I can write with complete confidence that what happened in the jury room that led to Angel’s conviction was based solely on her appearance. 

First off, Angel is incredibly good-looking, her mother is incredibly good-looking, and her grandmother is incredibly good-looking.

All of that notwithstanding, Angel has the most severe case of “resting bitch face” in all of Tennessee. 

There’s a critical scene in the courtroom when Hayduk tells Angel that although she may be feeling upset and angry, the jury needs to see a pitiful person. 

This is the same kind of face-policing advice that I was given in an airport about nine years ago. My luggage was lost and I went to the airline's office to see what was going on. It was the holiday season and I was traveling home to the Midwest from Atlanta where I was living at the time. The airline office was small and they only allowed one person in at a time for privacy. When it was my turn I stepped into the office and closed the door. The white woman at the counter took one look at me and immediately put her head down, never making eye contact again. I gave my information. She stared at the screen for a while. I waited in silence. It was just the two of us. After a while, she said there was nothing she could do for me and asked me to leave. I asked her what was the next step, and she said she would be calling security. It happened that fast. I said, “you should call them because I’m not leaving without some information on how to get my luggage.” Then the police came. She told them that since I didn’t smile at her she immediately knew that I was in an irate mood and would cause trouble. The officer pulled me aside and told me that a friendly smile makes the difference between me getting into trouble with the law or not.

I am certain that Angel was convicted because she did not smile in the courtroom, or look sad. And to be fair, she didn’t have a reason to smile or to look sad. She looked pissed off because she was on trial for a murder that happened when she was in the eighth grade at a man’s house who she had never met. 

It wasn’t her shitty defense team, or the two prints on the Duct tape that got Angel convicted. It was the stale, expressionless, Black girl with an attitude face. 

I can’t be convinced otherwise.

According to an Instagram page started on Angel’s behalf, her appeal hearing has been rescheduled at least five times since April 2021. Fighting for Angel’s release continues to prove that the criminal justice system refuses to take any accountability for its crimes against humanity, and as a Black woman who has been misjudged for refusing to devour disrespect with a smile, a part of me feels like I have experienced a less extreme version of  Angel Bumpass’story more times than I can count.

Click here to sign the petition demanding a retrial for Angel Bumpass.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Branden Janese is an artist. Her writing is published in The Wall Street Journal, Complex, Greatest, Flaunt and more. Her research appears in several documentary films and TV series. She wrote and recorded two seasons of the podcast, Sick Empire. She lives in the Bronx.

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