Local News

Judge to review police video in UNC student's death

Posted September 18, 2009 10:58 a.m. EDT
Updated October 8, 2009 11:32 a.m. EDT

— A Superior Court judge said Friday that he would decide next week whether to release 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 are seeking 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 officers shot Smith after a confrontation.

Smith was the president of the UNC chapter of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He had reportedly left a party at the fraternity house several hours before the shooting.

It's unclear where Smith was going, but in a 911 recording released by Guilford Metro 911, he 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.

Archdale police said Smith confronted Officer Jeremy Flinchum during the traffic stop and that Flinchum shot Smith.

In the 911 recording, an officer can be heard yelling at him 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 said he wanted to review the video before ruling on whether it should be unsealed and released to the media.

Randolph County Assistant District Attorney Andy Gregson argued in court Friday that the video wasn't public record under state law and should remain under seal until the investigation of the case is completed.

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 SBI investigation.

Gregson said he hasn't seen the video, but he maintained that releasing it to the media could wind up tainting a jury in any criminal trial held in the case and might affect witness testimony.

Hugh Stevens, an attorney for WRAL News, said the only two witnesses to the shooting are police officers, so he doubts that they would change their testimony based on the video. He also said it's unlikely that the video would make it impossible to find impartial jurors.

"I don't know whether this video will vindicate the officers or not, but at least it will presumably shed light on what is currently a very dark corner," Stevens said after the hearing.

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

"It's a public record unless there is clear exemption or exception to the contrary," he said.