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Judge: Police video in UNC student's death to remain sealed

Posted September 29, 2009
Updated October 8, 2009

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— A Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday against media efforts to obtain footage from a police video camera showing the events leading up to the fatal shooting of a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill student last month.

WRAL News, The Associated Press and UNC's student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, are among several media outlets that sought to make the evidence public.

Courtland Smith, a junior biology major from Houston, Texas, was killed early Aug. 23 after a police confrontation following a 911 call during which the 21-year-old repeatedly asked a Guilford County dispatcher to send help.

Archdale police stopped Smith on southbound Interstate 85 in Randolph County. A police report said Officer Jeremy Flinchum shot Smith after a confrontation.

In a 911 recording released by Guilford Metro 911, Smith said he was headed to Asheville. He told a dispatcher that he was drunk, had a 9-mm pistol with him and was trying to kill himself.

An officer can be heard in the 911 recording yelling at Smith to stay in the car, and the caller can be heard later saying, "I've got to pull something out."

The recording ends before the shooting, and the rest of the recording, as well as video footage from the dashboard camera of Flinchum's patrol car, have been sealed by court order.

Judge Brad Long reviewed the video and decided that releasing it would jeopardize the investigation.

"The need for a complete investigation into the death of a young college student shot on the side of the road in the middle of the night or the right of the state of North Carolina to potentially prosecute someone for the death of another without having that right jeopardized or the right of the potential defendant to a fair trial when facing severe penalties are paramount and far outweigh the need of the public to review the actions of its agencies," Long wrote in his seven-page ruling.

Prosecutors had argued that the video isn't public record under state law and should remain under seal until the investigation of the case is completed.

North Carolina has never had a case dealing specifically with the release of dashboard camera video. The state's law outlining what items in a criminal investigation are public record was written before cameras were widely used in officers' cars.

The State Bureau of Investigation is reviewing the case, which is customary procedure in officer-involved shootings. Flinchum is on paid leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

17 Comments

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  • james27613 Sep 30, 2009

    The police should have never showed or released any of the video period.

    Since they released some of it, the Judge should let the entire video be public.

  • Capt Mercury Sep 30, 2009

    Looks like the judge is trying to avoid a media crucifiction of the shooting officer. No matter what the situation was, the officer is not going to be able to sue the college kid. If the officer had reason to shoot, we'd have seen the video long ago. But the kid's family could sue the officer and his police department for millions if he was killed without due cause. Looks like the county better start counting out the money.

  • melhanpow Sep 30, 2009

    I'm sure its only a matter of time before the cops are being sued by the family. Cops always have to defend themselves ..regardless of the situation. They are guilty until proven innocent.

  • WHEEL Sep 30, 2009

    How can documented facts BIAS a jury? I thought only a judge could do that.

  • AnotherIgnoredComment Sep 30, 2009

    Looks like they are going to file charges, or at least put it before a grand jury. I was one of the outspoken pro-LEO who decided not to pass judgement quickly (like others on here unfortunately). give it time and the facts will come out. Does not look good for the officers and probably will go before a grand jury. Have to agree that if it was a cut and dry clean shoot, the tape, or at least some pics from it would have been released. They can't release it now b/c it could taint a potential jury.

  • squid90 Sep 30, 2009

    We are assuming here that the judge is saying there is a case and it will end up in court. There is no reason to believe the SBI will conclude that anything needs to end up in a court. I also believe that after the cops are judged by the SBI the tapes will be sealed permanently to protect the family and it will also be decided that such police tapes will not become a public record in any future cases.

  • seankelly15 Sep 30, 2009

    Raleigh daddy of 2 - I am sorry but I do not share your future view. The tape is withheld now and then at the end of the trial it will be something else; the defendants’ will ask that the tape continue to be sealed because of their appeals, or the family will want tape to be kept sealed because of their civil case.

  • Commenter Sep 30, 2009

    Criminal charges being considered against the cop? Where are all "the shooting was justified" people?

    I see no difference between a 911 call and a video record. Both belong to the public.

  • Raleigh daddy of 2 Sep 30, 2009

    It doesn't say that the video will never be seen by anyone. It is stating that the video is sealed from public viewing until the case goes to court and/or concludes. Then it will be shown as evidence more than likely. I am very curious as to what the tape shows. I tend to agree with the idea that if the young man had acted agressively towards the cops and it was obvious that it was justified, we would have seen this video already. Doing so whould have removed the doubt the public has on the police. But there must be more to look at on the tape and it might prove to be key in the defense or prosecution of the cops. It will be interesting to see how this turns out. From the public's POV, to lean one way or the other would be reckless at this point. Let's just hope that the case does reveal what really happened that morning.

  • DeathRow-IFeelYourPain-NOT Sep 30, 2009

    I also agree not to show the tape. Not only does this tape show whether the student was a threat or not, but it also probably shows the student's death. Not something that would normally be shown on the six o'clock news.

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