Pasquotank County’s District Attorney Andrew Womble announced at a press conference Tuesday that he will not charge the three sheriff’s deputies involved in killing Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City on April 21. Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten announced later that the three deputies, though keeping their positions, will be disciplined and retrained.
Womble said he came to his conclusion after reviewing evidence turned over by the State Bureau of Investigation. An SBI press release indicates that the agency provided crime scene analysis and interviews of witnesses to the prosecutor, who has the authority to press charges.
Deputies in the Pasquotank County sheriff’s office arrived at Brown’s residence to serve two felony arrest warrants and a search warrant on the morning of April 21. Womble said deputies blocked Brown’s parked car next to his house to prevent Brown, seated in his vehicle, from driving forward.
Surrounded by deputies who shouted commands, Brown backed up his car and turned to his left to escape, during which Womble said Sgt. Joel Lunsford, standing on the front right side of the car, was almost hit.
Body camera footage from law enforcement officers released at the press conference shows that Brown was driving away when deputies fired shots at him. Womble emphasized that deputies did not open fire until the car started in motion.
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“The decision to flee, which Brown made on his own quickly escalated the situation from a show of force to an employment of force,” Womble said. He added that law enforcement officers were “duty-bound” to arrest Brown and couldn’t simply let him go. Womble said Brown, on the other hand, used the car as a deadly weapon the minute he decided to resist the arrest.
Chance Lynch, a lawyer representing Brown’s family disputed the conclusion in an interview with Policy Watch. “When he was away from the police, going away from them, why did they unload their weapons?” Lynch said. “he was not a threat.”
Brown died after sustaining two wounds, including a lethal one in the back of his head, preliminary autopsy findings show. A bullet trajectory investigation found that three deputies fired nine shots from two handguns and five shots from an AR-15 rifle.
“There is no evidence that the number of shots fired by the deputies was excessive,” Womble said. He said the deputies’ use of force was justified in the face of perceived threat.
Womble added that his determination is in line with Supreme Court precedent that prosecutors should judge from the perspectives of officers on the scene instead of the “20/20 vision of hindsight.”
Lynch told Policy Watch that the DA’s office has not reached out to Brown’s family ahead of the press conference, going against the standard protocol. “What we’ve seen today has been a miscarriage of justice,” Lynch said. He said he and his co-counsel are demanding to see the unredacted footage, as well as the release of the SBI report which can only be authorized by a judicial official.
Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley released a statement Tuesday demanding an independent investigation into the case. “There are too many unanswered questions and a stunning lack of transparency — starting with the refusal to publicly release the full bodycam footage — to render any decision in this case,” she wrote.
Kristie Puckett-Williams, statewide manager of the ACLU of North Carolina’s Campaign for Smart Justice, issued the following statement after the announcement:
“It should not come as a surprise that the criminal legal system has upheld the legitimacy of another police murder of a Black person. Communities deserve justice and accountability, but history shows justice for people of color is rare in a system that was built upon slavery and has been modified over time to control and limit the lives of those who are not white.
The decision not to bring charges against those who killed Andrew Brown Jr. is a sign that the system is working as it was designed to. These cases of state-sanctioned murder are not anomalies. They are business as usual. Until we have radically changed the many ways the criminal legal system harms and kills Black and Brown people, justice will continue to elude its victims.”
Sheriff Wooten said he will work with county officials to ask the judge to release the video to the public “as soon as possible.” He said he will soon release part of the SBI report, as well as findings from an internal investigation and an outside expert investigation that reviewed policies and evidence.
Based on the findings, Wooten faulted two deputies with failure to turn on their body cameras, which he called “unacceptable,” and the absence of an EMS team.
“While the district attorney concluded that no criminal law was violated, this was a terrible and tragic outcome, and we could do better,” Wooten said.
At the recommendation of the expert investigation, Wooten announced his deputies will need to submit a pre-mission plan for confrontational settings in writing.
The three law enforcement officers who fired shots —Investigator Daniel Meads, Deputy Sheriff II Robert Robert Morgan and Corporal Aaron Lewellyn — were placed on administrative leave, according to a press release dated April 29.