A crowd gathers outside the Pasquotank County Sheriff's office in April 2021 in Elizabeth City, as family members of Andrew Brown Jr. watch a portion of the officer body camera footage of his killing. They viewed much more of the footage on the following month. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press.

by Jason deBruyn, WUNC

Lawyers gathered in federal court in Raleigh on Tuesday to argue a specific point within a $30 million wrongful-death lawsuit against Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten and his office.

The suit stems from the killing of Andrew Brown Jr., who was shot by sheriff’s deputies as they attempted to execute a drug-related arrest warrant.

At issue on Tuesday, was how exactly the plaintiffs in the case — the surviving family of Brown led by Lillie Brown Clark, Andrew Brown’s aunt and the administrator of his will — may use information from a State Bureau of Investigation report on the events of that day.

Though oddly, it’s possible that attorneys had misunderstood each other leading up to the hearing.

When law enforcement shoot civilians, the SBI conducts an investigation. The report it generates is turned over to the local district attorney who decides whether to press charges. That SBI investigation report is never a public record.

However, some family members of the deceased and their lawyers may have access to the files, typically under a protective order that prevents them from speaking directly to the public or media about what they learned in the report.

Attorneys for Brown’s family say they have seen parts of the SBI report.

Attorneys representing Wooten and sheriff’s deputies have said the attorneys representing Brown-Clark want to try the case in the court of public opinion.

“It has been tried essentially in the news media, not in the courts where it belongs,” Chris Geis, the lawyer representing Wooten, told the judge Tuesday.

Harry Daniels, lawyer for Brown-Clark, disagreed with Geis’ characterization.

Information from the SBI report can be used when prosecuting or defending a case, or used in depositions or in other narrow exceptions that apply directly to events that will be used in court. That’s the extent to which Brown-Clark’s team wants to use the information, Daniels said.

“We have no desire to go beyond (that),” he told the judge.

Daniels further disputed that his goal is to try the case through the media.

“The publicity is based on what happened in Pasquotank County,” he said.

Judge Robert Numbers said he will make a ruling “in a few days.”

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