A Superior Court judge in Randolph County has ruled against releasing a videotape recorded from a Randolph police officer’s car of Courtland Smith’s fatal encounter with deputies. The release had been requested in a motion filed by four news organizations.
Judge Vance Bradford Long concluded that “release of the video will undermine an ongoing criminal investigation, will jeopardize the right of the State to prosecute a potential defendant and will jeopardize the right of a potential defendant to receive a fair trial.”
Smith was shot and killed by an officer of the Archdale Police department at a traffic stop along Interstate 85 early on the morning of Aug. 23. Smith, president of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at UNC, was pulled over after he called police and told a dispatcher he was contemplating suicide, that he had a gun and that he had been drinking. The State Bureau of Investigation is probing the incident and has custody of the videotape.
An autopsy report released Oct. 15 by the state medical examiner’s office indicated that Smith had reached for his pocket, leading the Archdale officer to believe he was going for a gun, according to a report by The News & Observer of Raleigh.
According to The N&O’s report on the autopsy results, Smith died of multiple gunshot wounds from a .357-caliber weapon. The paper reported that a sketch showed one bullet had hit in the center of Smith’s torso.
Until the release of the autopsy report, no details beyond what could be heard in the 911 call had been released.
Long wrote in his ruling that the video does not show Smith being shot “but does portray the interaction between Mr. Smith and the officers immediately prior to the shooting and actions taken by the officers after the shooting.”
The media outlets, including The News & Observer of Raleigh, contended the video was a public record. Long wrote that state law sets out a general rule that records for a criminal investigation are not public, that the list of exceptions is limited and that there is no provision for release of a video.
On the 911 tape, the caller tells the dispatcher that “I’m trying to kill myself.” He said he had a 9mm pistol with him. He apparently was confused, thinking he was heading west on I-40. When the dispatcher asked him if he had been drinking, he said, “A little bit.” He described his vehicle to the dispatcher in a conversation that lasted more than 10 minutes. The dispatcher repeatedly asked him to pull over.
Smith’s car was stopped at 4:54 a.m. The driver’s cell phone continued to pick up the sounds of the officers approaching the vehicle. The driver is heard speaking at the end of the tape, which lasted 15 minutes, 14 seconds. The Archdale police statement says that once the vehicle came to a stop, a confrontation ensued and the officer then shot the subject. The Archdale police have said nothing else about the incident.
The 21-year-old junior from Houston was pronounced dead at High Point Regional Hospital later that morning.