Andrew Brown Jr.’s family seeks $30 million compensation in federal lawsuit

The family of Andrew Brown Jr., a Black Elizabeth City man killed by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies in April, is asking for more than $30 million from two sheriffs and seven deputies in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Lawyers for the Brown family announced the filing of a Brown complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina at a press conference Wednesday. The suit claims that the defendants, Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II and seven of his deputies deployed to arrest Brown, as well as Dare County Sheriff Doug Doughtie, violated Brown’s constitutional rights when deputies shot him in the back of his head while he was trying to flee. At that time, Brown was steering his vehicle away to avoid the deputies on a mission to serve a search warrant for illegal substances in his residence and vehicles, as well as two arrest warrants for Brown from the Dare County Sheriff’s Office.

The plaintiff’s constitutional claim relies on a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case Tennessee vs Garner, in which former Justice Byron White wrote, “The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable.”

As Policy Watch previously reported, District Attorney Andrew Womble refused to charge the deputies, saying that the totality of the circumstance — that Brown could have struck some of the officers — justified their split-second decision to use deadly force.

“Womble said the case was closed, but that’s not how it works in America,” Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said at a press conference Wednesday. “Now it’s the time to put this matter in court under the microscope of the Constitution, and the law, and not just the opinion of one DA.”

Chance Lynch, a member of the Brown family’s legal team, accused Womble of misinterpreting the law and allowing impunity. Lynch said, “It’s clearly established you cannot shoot a driver while they’re driving away from you.” Read more

Gov. Cooper’s pardon for 2019 exoneree Dontae Sharpe is overdue, advocates say

Criminal justice advocates rallied and delivered a letter to Gov. Cooper Friday petitioning him to issue a pardon to Dontae Sharpe, who spent 24 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Sharpe, who’s Black, was convicted of the 1994 murder of a George Radcliffe, a 34-year-old white, Greenville man, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. He was 19 when the jury sent him to prison in 1995. Evidentiary hearings during Sharpe’s appeals later uncovered inconsistencies in the account of a 14-year-old girl who served as a key witness.

“This pardon, I’m not begging for it. I’m not pleading for it,” Sharpe said at the press conference before he and his supporters before their march to deliver the letter.

Sharpe did not take any plea deals offered by the District Attorney, insisting on his innocence, said Theresa Newman, a member of Sharpe’s defense team and co-director of Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic. “He says, ‘It was too easy for them to convict me, and I do not want to make it easy for them to release me,'” Newman recalled.

Though exonerated in 2019, Sharpe has not been eligible for compensation from the state until officially pardoned. A pardon would “reaffirm the innocence proven through his exoneration, remove barriers to employment and housing,” a statement from his supporters said.

Cooper granted pardons to five individuals last December, including Ronnie Long, who spent more than 40 years behind bars. Sharpe’s supporters, however, noted that Long’s pardon wasn’t granted until months after he was cleared by a judge and that others have waited for years.

Dontae Sharpe speaking at July 9 press conference in Raleigh .

“I’m just here to put Mr. Cooper, this whole system, North Carolina on notice that I’m gonna keep right on talking. I’m gonna keep on doing what I’m doing because there’s more guys left that I left in there behind me, that me and Ronnie Long left in there behind us that’s innocent.”

In 2019, a judge vacated Sharpe’s conviction after finding the state failed to present sufficient evidence. Evidence presented during appeals revealed that the medical examiner testified without knowledge of the prosecution’s set of facts and positions. Had she known, she would have testified that the 14-year-old witness’s description had been “medically and scientifically impossible.

Automatic pardons needed to expedite the compensation process, lawyers said

Sharpe’s supporters showcased a petition for his pardon signed by thousands of individuals. “Pardon Dontae Sharpe!” They chanted. “Free Dontae Sharpe!”

“Dontae Sharpe at the hands of the state wrongfully spent more years in prison than in freedoms,” said Dennis Gaddy, a founding member of the NC Second Chance Alliance. “Twenty-six years, is an eternity.”

“Since the age of 19, he’s been denied the ability to hold his baby, to raise his child, to attend the funeral services of his loved ones, to support his loving mother, to make a living, and pursue his education to contribute to his community and grow older with his brothers,” Gaddy said.

Once pardoned, Sharpe could apply for compensation to the state Industrial Commission — $50,000 for each year of imprisonment up to $750,000. Ronnie Long received the maximum compensation allowed under state law.

Jamie Lau, a supervising attorney at the Wrongful Convictions Clinic said legislators should pass legislation providing that a judge’s order of exoneration would trigger the compensation process. Because of the current delays, Lau said, “The individuals who were exonerated after all those years were relying on the goodwill of family and friends that helped them survive when the state owed them so much.”

A bill that would have allowed those wrongfully convicted to seek monetary relief right after exoneration failed to pass out of the House Judiciary 2 Committee this year at the General Assembly. Lau said in an email that bill sponsors indicated they were considering incorporating the language into an existing bill.

Sharpe is among several Black men who have been formerly exonerated and are awaiting gubernatorial pardons, said Rev. William Barber, head of the National Poor People’s Campaign, who spoke at the press conference. Barber called on the state to take immediate action and pass laws to grant automatic pardons following exoneration.

Barber said the criminal justice system is broken, that prosecutors and police have not been held accountable for the wrongs they have committed, and should be. “Everybody that ever swears on the Constitution is lying, that they will let the system get away with murder, and support the system more than they will the people that the system hurt,” Barber said.

UNC-Chapel Hill police chief, David Perry, resigns

David Perry

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Chief of Police, David Perry, has resigned according to a statement from the university.

“UNC Police Department Assistant Chief/Captain Rahsheem Holland, who has served as acting police chief since mid-May, will continue in that capacity. We will conduct a national search for the next UNC police chief, the details of which will be announced at a later date,” George Battle, Vice Chancellor for Institutional Integrity and Risk Management said in a statement.

No reason was provided for Perry’s decision, and he has yet to respond to requests for comment. He had been on leave since May, after having undergone what he described as a major surgical procedure.

Perry’s initial hiring in 2019 drew criticism from some quarters due to his involvement in a controversy during his previous job. As Policy Watch reported at the time:

Perry comes to UNC from Florida State University, where his tenure as chief of police included criticism of the handling of two rape allegations against Jameis Winston, then FSU’s quarterback and later a player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The handling of the 2012 rape allegations and Perry’s actions specifically were criticized at the time. The controversy was the subject of reports from the New York Times and featured in the Emmy nominated documentary “The Hunting Ground,” about the epidemic of sexual assaults on American college campuses.

The Times investigation found “there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.”

In what may or may not have been a coincidence, today’s news comes just days after a high-profile UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees meeting at which police clashed with demonstrators who were protesting the treatment of of prospective Journalism School hire Nikole Hannah-Jones and at which the board ultimately voted to offer her tenure. UNC Police pushed demonstrators out of the room after they refused to leave when the board went into closed session. Julia Clark, vice president of UNC’s Black Student Movement, said that Officer Holland, who now serves as acting chief, struck her in the face. A video of the incident appears to confirm her claim. 

Following the meeting, Battle released a statement defending the officer’s actions and saying that no injuries were sustained.

“After the board voted to move into closed session pursuant to the North Carolina open meetings law, the demonstrators remained for a few minutes to express themselves. UNC Police then instructed the group to depart, and most did,” Battle’s statement said. “A small number of individuals did not leave the meeting when asked. UNC Police followed protocol and moved those protestors into the hall. We respect the right of our community to peacefully express themselves, but the law is clear that demonstrators cannot disrupt public meetings and proceedings. The situation was resolved with no injuries and proceedings were able to continue without further interruption. The officers on the scene dispute the allegation made by the demonstrators, however anytime an individual makes a claim of excessive force, UNC Police will review the claim.”

Following the meeting, Clark posted photos of bruises on her face and arms. Other students said they had been punched by UNCPD officers as well.

Veteran Virginia journalist on new race-based traffic stop statistics: “Do you believe us now?”

Virginia police officers pepper sprayed U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario during a traffic stop in December that resulted in a lawsuit, the firing of one officer and outcry across Virginia and elsewhere. (Image: Virginia Mercury and NBC 12)

“Do you believe us now?”

That’s what Black people are saying across Virginia about the way people of color are stopped, sweated and searched by law-enforcement officers in the state. Often based on racial profiling. Often due to nothing more than a whim.

First came the now-viral video of two Windsor patrol officers and their over-the-top encounter with a Black U.S. Army officer in December. The town fired the more-aggressive police officer — but not until the repeated airing of the incident provoked widespread outrage.

Now The Virginia Mercury’s Ned Oliver has reviewed the first six months of data covering more than 400,000 traffic stops from most police and sheriff’s departments in the commonwealth. The collection of the statistics began in July, as part of the state’s new Community Policing Act.

You could’ve easily predicted the results: Black drivers in Virginia are almost two times more likely than White drivers to be pulled over by police, and three times more likely to have their vehicles searched. Black motorists here are targeted for roadside traffic enforcement, making up 30 percent of traffic stops though they represent only 19 percent of the state’s population.

Latino drivers accounted for 9 percent of stops, Oliver reported, roughly equal to their population in Virginia. Non-Hispanic White drivers were a little less likely to pulled over, accounting for 55 percent of the stops and 61 percent of the population.

Do you believe us now?

The statistics merely confirm what lots of people of color already knew — or at the very least, accepted as a truism — every time they turned on the ignition: You have little margin for error. Even when you’re doing everything right, be wary on the road.

Not that there should’ve been any debate. Virginia isn’t so different from other states already keeping meticulous records on police stops. What’s happening here has been, sadly, repeated elsewhere.

North Carolina became the first state in the country, in 1999, to mandate collection of stats on police stops. The overall number of stops has actually decreased there over time. Yet published reports in 2020, citing a study from the N.C. Criminal Justice Analysis Center, show a racial disparity remains.

“Black drivers get stopped at more than twice the rate of White drivers,” The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported. “People of other races, and those whose race wasn’t recorded, were stopped at 1.5 times the rate of White drivers.”  Read more

Pasquotank Sheriff’s deputies who shot Andrew Brown Jr. to be disciplined, but not charged

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.

“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.

Attorney Chance Lynch – Image: Lynch’s Facebook page

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.”

Kristie Puckett-Williams

Sheriff Tommy Wooten

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.