A North Carolina prosecutor said on Tuesday that the fatal shooting of a Black man in Elizabeth City, N.C., by local sheriff’s deputies was justified, because the man, Andrew Brown Jr., used his car as a “deadly weapon” as he tried to evade arrest. The deputies will not face criminal charges, he said.
R. Andrew Womble, the district attorney for North Carolina’s First Judicial District, made the announcement in a news conference on Tuesday, during which he described Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies’ efforts to serve a drug-related warrant on Mr. Brown and showed snippets of police body camera video from the brief, deadly encounter.
The facts of this case, Mr. Womble said, “clearly illustrate the officers who used deadly force on Andrew Brown Jr. did so reasonably, and only when a violent felon used a deadly weapon to place their lives in danger.”
Three deputies opened fire on Mr. Brown as he tried to get away in his car on April 21, firing 14 shots. His death, just days after a jury found a Minneapolis police officer guilty of murdering George Floyd, another Black man, sparked days of peaceful protest in Elizabeth City, a majority-Black city of 18,000 people on North Carolina’s eastern coast.
The family of Mr. Brown and their lawyers, who saw some video footage of the shooting earlier, have described it as an “execution,” arguing that deputies overreacted by opening fire on a man who was trying to get away from them, not hurt them. They said a private autopsy showed that he was hit by five bullets and killed by a shot to the back of the head.
But Mr. Womble said on Tuesday that Mr. Brown, at one point, drove his car “directly at” a deputy, giving the officers the legal right to open fire. Mr. Womble said an official autopsy showed that Mr. Brown was shot twice, including in the head, during an interaction that took a total of 44 seconds.
The prosecutor said that after the deputies arrived at Mr. Brown’s house to serve the warrant and surrounded him while he was in his car, Mr. Brown put the vehicle in reverse. At that point, Mr. Womble said, Sgt. Joel Lunsford, who had his hand on the driver’s side door handle, “was pulled over the hood of Brown’s vehicle, where his body and his safety equipment were struck by the vehicle.”
Mr. Womble said that Mr. Brown ignored deputies’ commands to stop, continued to back up and then put the car in drive. At that point, Sergeant Lunsford was “directly in front of the vehicle,” Mr. Womble said, and Mr. Brown drove directly at him.
“It was at this moment that the first shot was fired” by sheriff’s investigator Daniel Meads, Mr. Womble said. It went through the front windshield. Then multiple shots rang out.
The prosecutor said that a bag with a substance containing what is believed to be crystal methamphetamine was found in Mr. Brown’s mouth by the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy.
The officers, Mr. Womble said, were “duty-bound to stand their ground, carry through on the performance of their duties, and take Andrew Brown into custody. They could not simply let him go, as has been suggested.”
Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Democrat, had asked Mr. Womble to turn the case over to a special prosecutor, as have lawyers for the Brown family. Mr. Womble said Tuesday that a special prosecutor was not accountable to the people of North Carolina’s seven-county First Judicial District. “I am,” he said.
Bakari Sellers, one of the lawyers representing Mr. Brown’s family, said that Mr. Womble’s decision was “disappointing, but expected.” The video played by Mr. Womble at his news conference, Mr. Sellers said, shows “an unjustified shooting,” despite the prosecutor’s decision.
“It shows you why you shouldn’t take any solace in the George Floyd verdict,” Mr. Sellers said. “Because justice in cases like this is so fleeting. What we saw today illustrates just how difficult it is for officers to be held accountable.”
Ronald Wright, a professor of criminal law and criminal procedure at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., said Mr. Womble’s decision most likely ended the possibility of any state-level criminal prosecution of the officers.
But he said that Mr. Womble’s decision does not prevent the Brown family from pursuing civil litigation. He also noted that there is a federal investigation of the shooting by the F.B.I., which is working with federal prosecutors and the civil rights division of the Justice Department.
That investigation could potentially include exploring whether the deputies deprived Mr. Brown of his constitutional rights by using excessive force.
“You can hope that the D.O.J. can come in,” said Mr. Sellers, the lawyer for the Brown family. “Unfortunately, that may be our last hope.”
Mr. Womble’s description of the police body and dash camera footage was starkly different from the description offered by Mr. Brown’s family and members of their legal team, who had been given two occasions to see some of the footage.
“We did not see any actions on Mr. Brown’s part where he made contact with them or try to go in their direction,” said Chance D. Lynch, a lawyer who reviewed about 20 minutes of the recordings with family members this month. “In fact, he did just the opposite.”
A slow-motion review of the footage from the news conference by The New York Times’s Visual Investigations unit shows that after deputies surrounded Mr. Brown’s car with weapons drawn, he appears to clip an officer when he reverses briefly.
Mr. Brown then drives forward, toward the same deputy, and tries to drive away between him and a second, appearing to try to avoid hitting them while driving across a vacant lot. As he appears to be directing the car away from the deputy in front of him, who briefly places his left hand on the hood of the car, an officer fires the first shot, according to the Times review.
A local judge delayed the public release of the body camera videos, citing concerns that their release could compromise the investigation. The decision angered demonstrators and family members who said members of the public should have the right to see the recordings and decide for themselves whether the shooting was justified.
Although Mr. Womble showed portions of the video on Tuesday, he said he was not authorized to release the full footage publicly.
Christoph Koettl contributed reporting.
Author: Richard Fausset
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