31 March 2022
Oxford, N.C. — After a legal dispute, a Granville County mother mourning the loss of her son shot and killed by deputies has finally been able to see the body camera footage of her son’s death.
“I didn’t know if I really wanted to do it, but I knew I had to see it for myself. I needed to know what really happened,” said Valarie Smith-Ragland, who called 911 in February while her son was suffering from a mental health crisis.
Makari Smith was a 23-year-old Army veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. The body camera video Smith-Ragland saw this week shows her son fire a shotgun away from deputies while in clear mental distress, she said. Seconds after Smith fired his shot gun, a responding deputy shot and killed Smith in his aunt’s driveway, according to those who saw the video.
Dawn Blagrove, lawyer and executive director of Emancipate NC who saw the video, believes that Smith was suicidal.
“It is clear that this young man was in a very, very bad emotional place. A very dark emotional place,” she said.
Blagrove says the video shows that the sheriff’s deputy who shot Smith immediately began to cry after shooting him.
“If I had to put a term to it, I would say what we saw was suicide by cop,” Blagrove said. “He fired the gun, not in the direction of the officer, not even really pointed at the officer. He literally just fired the weapon.”
The sheriff’s deputy who shot Smith immediately begins to cry and is in shock as to what happened, according to video Blagrove saw.
The body camera video has not been released to the public, and WRAL News has not independently viewed it.
‘I can’t save my child, he’s gone, but I can try to help save some other people’s children.’
Smith-Ragland said she isn’t mad at the deputy who shot her son. She’s frustrated with the failures within the institution of policing, health care and military in the United States that led to her son’s death.
“The military didn’t debrief my son well enough,” she said. “The veteran’s administration did not help him in a timely manner.”
Up to 20% of all veterans who served in Afghanistan or Iraq have been diagnosed with PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs. That’s more than three times the percent of average Americans diagnosed with PTSD.
Law enforcement officials are typically the first agency to respond to mental health crises and are usually poorly equipped to handle them, Blagrove argues.
“There should be someone else to call besides law enforcement when someone is having a mental health issue,” she said. “Violence is their first go-to, and that is a paradigm in a culture that needs to be radically interrupted.”
According to a 2015 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than someone without mental illness. Those without proper treatment for their mental health account for one in four of all deadly police encounters, one in five of all inmates and one in 10 of all law enforcement responses in the United States, the report says.
Last year, at least three veterans suffering from mental health episodes were killed by police after a loved one called 911, media reports indicate. Veteran Jonathan Pears, 32, was shot to death Alabama by a sheriff’s deputy in his parents’ front yard while suffering from a PTSD episode. Gulia Dale, a veteran who did an active-duty tour in Iraq, was shot and killed by police outside his home in New Jersey after Fourth of July fireworks triggered his PTSD.
“[Smith] was a veteran. He served his country. He fought for freedom. He fought for democracy,” Blagrove said. “He comes home and is gunned down like a dog, steps away from his home, simply because he cannot get the mental healthcare that he needs.”
Before February, Smith-Ragland called 911 when her son was suffering from a psychotic episode. The deputy that responded was very empathetic and was able to help Smith without resorting to violence. That deputy was a former veteran and spoke to Smith in a way that resonated with him, she said.
Smith-Ragland hopes to use her son’s story to push for more resources for both police officers and veterans to prevent another killing.
“I’m shaken. I’m angry that it had to come to this,” she said. “I can’t save my child, he’s gone, but I can try to help save some other people’s children.”
Legal fight to release body camera footage
Smith-Ragland petitioned the Granville County court to see video related to her son’s killing, and a judge agreed to hand over the body camera video on the condition that Smith-Ragland view the video alone. Considering the emotional weight of the video, Smith-Ragland didn’t feel comfortable watching the video on her own and reached out to the civil rights legal group Emancipate NC.
“We have to really have a real balancing act between what is human decency, what is civility, and this outsized protection of law enforcement that is baked into our criminal justice system,” Blagrove said. “It is cruel to ask this mother to watch a video of her son being shot and killed alone.”
The statute that governs law enforcement body camera footage in North Carolina, Senate Bill 300, says that a family member or a representative can request footage from a law enforcement agency via notarized form, and within three days, that agency must file a petition in Superior Court.
Under the statute, a judge would then review the video and decide, within seven business days of the petition filing, whether to let family see the video, to release an edited version or not release anything at all.
The Granville County judge initially interpreted this law to mean that only Smith-Ragland was allowed to see body camera footage of her son’s death.
Blagrove said that the state is allowed to have an “unlimited number of actors” watch the body camera video, including investigators and prosecutors.
After petitioning the court, Blagrove was able to convince the Granville County judge to allow her to be present with Smith-Ragland while watching the video. Blagrove stressed that this problem is indicative of obstacles put in place by local and state governments to protect local law enforcement.
“While we were able to get it worked out fine in this case, and we were able to get it resolved quickly, the reality is every person is not going to have Emancipate NC to advocate for them. Nor should they need it,” she said.
“When Smith-Ragland brought her attorney, Dawn Blagrove, with her to view the footage, I was concerned that the order as written did not allow disclosure to anyone other than the requestor, Smith-Ragland,” Granville County Attorney James Wrenn wrote in a statement.
“Blagrove and I consulted with the resident senior superior court judge who advised he would sign an amended order allowing Blagrove to accompany Smith-Ragland if Blagrove would file an affidavit stating that she was representing Smith-Ragland. The Sheriff’s Office did not express any opposition and had no concerns with Ms. Blagrove being present to provide support to Ms. Smith-Ragland during this difficult time,” he wrote.