Local News

DA: Officer justified in shooting UNC student

Posted December 4, 2009 10:22 a.m. EST
Updated December 4, 2009 7:00 p.m. EST

— An Archdale police officer was justified in shooting a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill student during an August traffic stop and won't face criminal charges in his death, Randolph County District Attorney Garland Yates said Friday.

Courtland Smith, 21, of Houston, was killed by Officer J.P. Flinchum during a confrontation along southbound Interstate 85 in Randolph County on Aug. 23. An autopsy determined he was shot four times.

In a 911 call Smith made as he sped along the highway, he told a dispatcher that he was drunk, had a 9-mm handgun and was trying to kill himself.

Flinchum and another officer located Smith's Toyota 4Runner and pulled him over near Hopewell Church Road in northeast Randolph County at about 5 a.m.

According to a State Bureau of Investigation review of the incident, Smith got out of his SUV after being stopped and refused to comply with the officers' orders to get back into the vehicle and to hold up his hands. As he walked toward the officers, he kept his right hand behind his back, according to the SBI.

The officers warned Smith he could get shot if he continued to disregard their orders, and he started walking backward to his SUV, according to the SBI. He then leaned into the vehicle and again started walking toward the officers, according to the SBI.

Flinchum and the other officer retreated as far as they could behind Flinchum's patrol car, but Smith continued to walk toward the officers with his right hand behind his back, according to the SBI. When Smith was about 10 feet away from Flinchum, he pulled his right hand out while holding something black, according to the SBI.

Flinchum fired five shots at Smith, hitting him twice in the abdomen and once each in the left thigh and upper back, according to the SBI. Smith died at High Point Regional Hospital.

Investigators recovered a black Blackberry cell phone next to where Smith was shot, but they found no weapon on him or in his SUV, according to the SBI. They also found a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey in the SUV, according to the SBI.

Smith sent an e-mail to his family earlier that night indicating that he wanted to commit suicide, according to the SBI.

"It is clear from all of the evidence that Officer J.P. Flinchum reasonably believed that he and Officer Jones were in imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury when he shot Courtland Smith," Yates wrote in .

"Officer J.P. Flinchum's actions were justified under the circumstances and well within the bounds of North Carolina law governing the use of deadly force," Yates wrote.

Archdale Police Chief Darrell Gibbs issued a statement Friday afternoon, saying that Yates' decision backs the findings of the police department's internal investigation.

"Certainly, this was a tragic incident for all involved, and our condolences go out to the family of Courtland Smith," Gibbs said.

UNC officials declined to comment Friday on Yates' decision, but students said it will be difficult to accept.

"It's like really painful because, even though they say it was justified, I don't think anyone should just get away with taking someone's life," student Denisha Gatling said.

"People who knew him and even people who didn't know him as well are still going to feel that void, you know, regardless of the end of the investigation," sophomore William Page said.

"It makes us realize that we are not indestructible when we are in college. I really believe that we think we are," junior Molly Fowler said.

Smith was the president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at UNC. University officials have placed the fraternity on social probation through the end of the school year because of alcohol-related infractions at a party the night Smith was killed, but they allowed the fraternity to maintain its charter on campus.

Chris Rice, an alumni adviser to the fraternity, declined to comment directly on Yates' decision, issuing a statement that addressed only the group's pain over Smith's death and its efforts to help his family.

"As a fraternity, we are doing our best to be together and support one another and will continue to do so as Courtland would want us to move forward," Rice said.