Local News

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

Posted September 29, 2009 5:23 p.m. EDT
Updated October 8, 2009 11:32 a.m. EDT

— 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 .

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.