This is a developing story and will be updated throughout the day.
Superior Court Judge Jeff Foster ruled Wednesday morning that body camera footage of the shooting and killing of Andrew Brown Jr. by sheriff’s deputies one week ago in Elizabeth City will not be released to the media for at least 30 days. Some family members and one attorney for the family will be permitted to view the video in the next 10 days.
Foster denied standing, or the legal ability to appear on a matter, to a media coalition. Media attorneys Mike Tadych and Amanda Martin who represented the coalition, including Carolina Public Press, said the ruling is the first denial of standing in the more than 30 body camera cases they have handled. When the ruling is final, they will likely appeal, they said, pending client approval.
Under North Carolina law, only a judge may approve the release of body camera footage to the public. Anyone, including law enforcement agencies, may make a request for the footage to be released or petition for a request to be denied.
Foster heard arguments from lawyers for the media, Pasquotank County, the district attorney’s office and unnamed clients on two petitions on Wednesday: one by Pasquotank County requesting release of the footage and one by a coalition of 20 media organizations, including Carolina Public Press, which filed a petition late last week asking for the release of the full footage to the public.
In court on the first petition, Pasquotank County Attorney Mike Cox, representing the Sheriff’s Office, said they supported release of the footage.
District Attorney Andrew Womble opposed immediate release of the footage, arguing that it would hinder any future criminal proceedings. He asked the judge to delay release for 30 days, noting that he requested that the State Bureau of Investigation inquiry be completed by that time and his understanding that the agency would finish in the 30-day window.
Womble said he may ask for additional delay beyond 30 days if he decides to bring criminal charges. In that case, he asked that the footage be released only as part of the criminal trial.
He described the footage as depicting Brown’s car contacting officers twice, a summary in conflict with what the family’s attorneys said after the initial viewing of some of the footage.
Attorney H.B. Williams appeared before the court representing unnamed clients who object to the release of the footage. “I’m speaking on behalf of several other attorneys and their clients, all of whom wish to remain unnamed because of safety concerns.”
He echoed Womble’s concerns about the safety of anyone identified in the videos.
He later said, “The officers are very distraught over what happened.”
On the second petition, attorney Mike Tadych spoke on behalf of the media coalition, including CPP. He cited other similar cases where body camera footage from officer-involved shootings was released, including in other cases across North Carolina.
Tadych said the First Amendment requires release of the records and every day of delay causes harm.
Womble objected to Tadych’s characterization of the issue. The district attorney supports public accountability, he said, but in this instance, having a fair and impartial trial in the future outweighs it.
Williams also objected to the release of the footage, arguing the media do not have standing under North Carolina law. Tadych responded by noting that the provision of the statute under which the media filed is not the provision Williams cited.
Following the decision, Sheriff Wooten issued a statement expressing disappointment in the ruling. “I wanted the body camera footage to be released to the public as soon as possible, and I’m disappointed it won’t happen immediately. Obviously, I’ll respect the judge’s ruling,” the statement read.
Family viewing of the footage
Nonetheless, the head of a law enforcement agency with the footage has sole discretion to permit individuals such as family members or anyone whose image or voice is captured in the footage to view footage without making a copy. In the Brown case, Pasquotank Sheriff Tommy Wooten II is the custodian of the footage.
On Friday, members of Brown’s family went to the Sheriff’s Office expecting to view the footage, but they left without being permitted to view it and without explanation, according to Brown’s aunt Glenda Thomas.
Initially, Wooten said he supported the release of the footage at the conclusion of the SBI investigation. Then, late Saturday, he told CPP that he wanted “immediate family” to view the tape “as soon as possible.”
Two days later, on Monday, Brown’s son, Khalil Ferebee, and one of the family’s attorneys, Chantel Cherry-Lassiter, were permitted to view footage. The legal team for Brown’s family said the viewing was of a “snippet” of the entire tape — a claim county officials denied in a “Check the Facts” post on their website.
“The entire encounter of engaging Mr. Brown and the use of deadly force lasted less than 20 seconds. The family viewed the entire encounter,” the statement said.
The county statement said faces of the involved officers were blurred, and additional footage of attempts to provide CPR on Brown was not made available to the family because “the time needed to blur faces of the additional video would’ve delayed us from showing the family the video on Monday as they requested.”
Attorneys for the family said County Attorney Cox blocked viewing of any additional footage and excluded some family and attorneys from seeing the tape.
“I want you to know that the sheriff was very, very apologetic and diplomatic,” one of the family’s attorneys, Bakari Sellers, said Monday. “The sheriff wanted to make sure that the family saw the video, but it was the county attorney that gave us this back-and-forth.”
Late Monday, Cox filed a petition on behalf of the county to release the video to Brown’s son, Khalil Ferebee.
“The PCSO recordings contain the images and voices of officers involved that have not been publicly identified due to an active internal or criminal investigation,” the petition stated. “Due to the public interest in this case, PCSO is requesting the PCSO recordings be released to Khalil Ferebee, the adult son of Mr. Brown.”
It is unclear whether the footage would include blurred faces or additional seconds beyond the initial viewing.
Gov. Roy Cooper weighed in on the release of the video, issuing a statement that read, “Initial reports of the shooting in Elizabeth City and death of Andrew Brown Jr. this week are tragic and extremely concerning. The body camera footage should be made public as quickly as possible, and the SBI should investigate thoroughly to ensure accountability.”
The SBI issued a statement deferring to local authorities and the court on the video. “The SBI supports transparency to the greatest extent possible, as we think this serves the interests of the family, the local community, and North Carolina as a whole,” the statement read.