Local and state leaders called for federal action after Pasquotank County District Attorney Andrew Womble declined to bring criminal charges against any officers involved in the killing of Andrew Brown Jr. on April 21 in Elizabeth City.
“There must be a full federal independent investigation,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach, in a statement condemning Womble’s actions. “The community cannot rest until this happens.”
Following the shooting, attorneys for the Brown family asked Womble to recuse himself from the case and request a special prosecutor. At a press conference Tuesday, Womble stood by his decision not to recuse himself, citing his election to the office.
“I’m elected by the people of the 1stJudicial District to do exactly this job,” he said. “A special prosecutor or outside counsel is not accountable to the people of this judicial district.”
Asked what recourse someone who disagrees with his assessment might have, Womble replied, “the ballot box.”
Womble announced his intention to run for Superior Court judge in late March, according to The Daily Advance.
“He is right when he told reporters that anyone not happy with his decision could register their complaint at the ballot box but wrong when he implied that this is the people’s only recourse for justice today,” Barber wrote.
Process for recusal
In late April, Gov. Roy Cooper called for an independent prosecutor to take over the case. State Attorney General Josh Stein offered to take over the case and assign a special prosecutor.
Under North Carolina law, the state Department of Justice, overseen by Stein, does not have the authority to intervene unless invited to do so by a district attorney, according to Shea Denning, a professor at the UNC School of Government. Womble did not invite Stein to intervene.
After Womble announced his assessment that the officers’ actions were justified, Cooper issued a statement reiterating the need for a continued investigation by federal authorities.
“Public confidence would have been better served with a special prosecutor and by quickly making public the incident footage,” the statement read. “Our state should pass specific laws to increase transparency, confidence and accountability in the justice system.”
Womble’s decision to not press charges is final, meaning that no state charges will be brought against the officers who fired their weapons. No mechanism exists for other state agencies to bring charges against those officers, Denning said.
Even without state criminal charges, there could be repercussions for the officers and the county.
The FBI announced it opened a civil rights investigation on April 27. According to the FBI’s civil rights investigations page, “it’s a federal crime for anyone acting under ‘color of law’ to willfully deprive or conspire to deprive a person of a right protected by the Constitution or U.S. law.”
The FBI “cannot provide further comment” on the timing, scope or subject of the investigation, according to agency spokesperson Shelley Lynch.
The SBI investigation was not the only inquiry into the incident. Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II announced Tuesday that an internal investigation conducted by deputies from other sheriffs’ offices found no legal wrongdoing.
Wooten said an unnamed outside expert also reviewed the investigation and found no laws were broken. The officers involved in the shooting will remain on the force, but they will be retrained and disciplined, he said.
The Brown family intends to file a civil lawsuit within the next week, according to family attorney Bakari Sellers.