A Superior Court judge in Randolph County has ruled that the videotape from a police car’s dashboard camera capturing the last moments of a UNC student’s life will remain sealed.
Judge Bradford Long concluded his decision Friday by writing that Randolph County Superior Court “is without the authority as a matter of law to release the video” of Courtland Smith’s fatal encounter with Archdale police on Aug. 23. Smith was president of Delta Kappa Epsilon.
The decision also maintains that videos such as the one in this case are records of criminal investigations and therefore not public records.
The media outlets that went to court to seek release of the tape plan to appeal. Hugh Stevens ’65, the attorney for the local media outlets that filed a motion to have the video released last fall, said he would file a motion this week asking for Long to clarify his ruling.
Smith was shot and killed by an Archdale police officer in the early morning along I-85. Smith was stopped by police after calling 911 and informing them he had been drinking, was armed and was contemplating suicide.
In October, Long had ruled that he would not release the videotape because release could jeopardize a criminal investigation and the right of the state to prosecute a potential defendant and could jeopardize the right of a potential defendant to receive a fair trial.
Long had ruled in September that the video could eventually be released if the officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing and not prosecuted for Smith’s death.
Randolph County District Attorney Garland Yates said in December that the fatal shooting of the 21-year-old Houston native by J.P. Flinchum, the Archdale officer, was “legally justified and lawful.”
Four news organizations filed a motion requesting the release of the tape last fall based on the contention that it was public record.
Smith’s parents, Pharr ’77 and Susan Smith, filed two motions in November with the court asking that the tape not be released. Jonathan Megerian ’81, an Asheboro attorney who represented the Smiths in the case, said Monday that Long’s decision left the Smith family “very relieved and glad the decision came out the way it did.”
But, Stevens said, “our position is that we find his order both disappointing and puzzling,” calling the decision “internally inconsistent.” Stevens said that on one hand Long held that he had no jurisdiction to release the video, but, on the other hand, Long ordered that the video should remain sealed and not disclosed to any person without an order from Long.
“Our question is that, if he has no discretion to release the video,” Stevens said, “where does he get the authority to exercise his discretion to seal the video?”
Stevens said that Long probably should have “washed his hands of the matter” and left the decision about the video’s release to the district attorney and the State Bureau of Investigation, even if Long was otherwise correct on the law.
Friday’s news also was a relief to DKE members, who joined Smith’s parents Saturday at a ceremony to break ground on the Courtland Benjamin Smith Memorial House, a Habitat for Humanity house the fraternity has chosen to help fund and help build in Smith’s honor.
The fraternity committed to raising the $75,000 cost to build the house. DKE has raised $64,000 of that amount, including a $25,000 contribution from Bank of America. Members will work with Habitat volunteers to build the house over the next 16 weeks.
The house, in a 50-home habitat complex on the north side of Chapel Hill, will be owned by a family who fled the violence in Burma. The couple both work for the University.
Contributions to the project can be sent to Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, attention of Courtland Smith Memorial House, 1829 E. Franklin St., Suite 1200B, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514; and online at orangehabitat.org/donate.