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Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. on April 21.
Protesters have peacefully taken to the streets each night since then demanding the release of body camera footage showing what happened.
Tuesday afternoon, Brown’s sons and their legal team viewed 18 minutes 40 seconds of video from four body cameras and a dashboard camera.
The basic facts of the case are being disputed, and the videos have not been released to the public.
Bakari Sellers, an attorney for the Brown family, said the videos showed “the entire story of what happened.” Previously, on April 26, the family and attorneys were shown 20 seconds of video, which they complained was incomplete.
Chance Lynch, another member of the family’s legal team, gave a moment-by-moment description of the sheriff’s deputies arriving on scene to the last shot fired.
His account differed in key ways from a similar breakdown, based on the same videos, made by local District Attorney Andrew Womble in a court hearing on April 28, as Womble argued against releasing the videos publicly.
“His hands were visible,” Lynch said. “At all times you can see that he was not a threat. There was a shot fired. When the shot was fired, he put the car in reverse, putting several feet if not yards (between him and) the police who were there.”
No law enforcement officers were ever behind the car, and Brown turned his car away from the officers before he started moving forward, Lynch said. Officers reached out and touched the car, either on the door handles or the hood, but were never in danger from the car and were never hit by the car, Lynch said.
“As he turned to the left to go across his yard, a second shot was fired. And as he began to accelerate and increase his speed, tracks of mud began to appear in the yard, and when his car was clearly across the yard, at all times what we saw were police officers standing on the pavement unloading their weapons,” Lynch said.
At one point, Brown lost control of his car, which crossed the street and crashed into a tree. When officers pulled Brown from the vehicle, the cameras showed the bullet wound to the back of his head that killed him, Lynch said.
Womble’s earlier account of the footage was different in key ways, describing Brown as a threat to the deputies. He said that as the car backed up, it “made contact with law enforcement officers,” then it came to a stop.
“The next movement of the car is forward,” Womble said. “It is in the direction of law enforcement and makes contact. It is then and only then that you hear shots.”
When the first shots were fired, whether any deputies were struck by Brown’s car — other than by deliberately reaching out to touch the car — and where the deputies were positioned are all in conflict between the two accounts.
A criminal investigation
Three investigations into what happened are ongoing, each on different timelines and with different potential consequences. Protesters and the Brown family attorneys are seeking criminal charges brought against the deputies involved in Brown’s killing.
“What we saw on that video is something that we believe also denotes further investigation and does have some criminal liability,” Sellers said.
The day of the shooting, Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II called in the State Bureau of Investigation, which often investigates when people die in law enforcement custody.
The SBI does not make any legal judgment on what agents find. They turn the results of their investigation over to the local district attorney, in this case Womble. He can decide to make those results public or to turn them over to Wooten.
N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein offered to have a special prosecutor from the state Department of Justice take over the case. Womble has not yet responded.
If he does not turn over the case, Womble will decide whether to bring criminal charges against any of the deputies involved in Brown’s shooting.
Womble told the court on April 28 he anticipated the SBI would finish its work in 30 days. The SBI will not publicly confirm the timeline of its investigation.
An internal and civil rights investigation
After the SBI investigation is complete, an internal investigation will begin, Wooten said. He requested that the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association coordinate deputies from other sheriff’s departments to perform the investigation.
According to the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office’s use-of-force policy, deputies can apply deadly force “to protect him/herself or others from what he/she reasonably believes is an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.”
The officers who fired their weapons may have violated this policy. The deputies were attempting to serve two arrest warrants and a search warrant on Brown for nonviolent drug charges, including intent to distribute.
Until both investigations are complete, the three deputies who fired their weapons will remain on leave, Wooten said. The four deputies who did not shoot were reinstated to active duty on April 29, according to a county press release.
On April 27, the FBI opened a civil rights investigation into the case.
“Agents will work closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina and the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice to determine whether federal laws were violated,” Shelley Lynch, an FBI spokesperson, wrote to Carolina Public Press.
Brown’s family is also considering a civil case. His two adult sons watched the body camera videos with their lawyers.
Making the video public
By state law, the head of a law enforcement agency can show footage in the agency’s possession to certain individuals, including the family of a deceased person who appears in the videos.
But the head of the agency, in this case Wooten, cannot release recordings of the videos to anybody. Only a Superior Court judge can order the release of those videos.
On April 23, a coalition of news outlets, including CPP, petitioned the Pasquotank County Superior Court for a full release of the footage. The next week, Wooten called for the full public release of the videos and was joined the week after that by the Pasquotank County Board of Commissioners.
But Judge Jeff Foster ruled from the bench on April 28 that the media coalition did not have standing to ask for release of the videos, a decision that the coalition plans to appeal as soon as Foster issues his order in writing.
Foster did say some portions of the video could be released to Brown’s adult son, Khalil Ferebee, after the SBI investigation is completed. Womble may petition the court not to release the footage if the district attorney decides to press charges against any of the officers. At that point, the footage would likely come out during a criminal trial.
Having seen the footage, Ferebee believes his father did nothing wrong.
“He wasn’t in the wrong at all,” Ferebee said. “What’s in the dark will come to the light.”