ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. – A judge said he would rule Wednesday on petitions to release bodycam footage of sheriff’s deputies fatally shooting a Black man after his death caused a week of protest and demands for accountability and transparency.
Andrew Brown Jr. was shot five times, including once in the back of his head, by deputies serving warrants at his home in Elizabeth City last week, an independent autopsy commissioned by his family and released Tuesday showed.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday called for a special prosecutor to handle the case and any decision on potential criminal charges. The FBI’s Charlotte field office said it had opened up a civil rights investigation into Brown’s death.
On Wednesday, Judge Jeffery Foster heard petitions in favor of releasing the video from the Pasquotank County Attorney on behalf of the sheriff’s office and from a coalition of media organizations, including Gannett, the parent company of USA TODAY.
District Attorney Andrew Womble, who oversees Pasquotank County, asked Foster to delay any release for at least 30 days while the State Bureau of Investigation conducts its investigation into the shooting. Womble cited concerns about any potential defendants’ right to a fair trial. If video were released and he brought criminal charges, Womble said it could bias the jury.
Arguing on behalf of the media organizations, attorney Mike Tadych said releasing the videos was in the public interest and could help dispel any rumors about what happened in Brown’s death.
Tadych said he has worked on prior cases where video has been released and it has not led to a biased jury. He also appealed to the current moment of public demands for police accountability in the U.S. as evidence for the public interest in the video.
Independent autopsy:Andrew Brown Jr. shot 5 times, once fatally in back of his head
In a statement, Robert L. Schurmeier, director of the State Bureau of Investigation, said the agency would defer to local authorities and the court to determine whether video should be released.
“The (State Bureau of Investigation) supports transparency to the greatest extent possible, as we think this serves the interests of the family, the local community, and North Carolina as a whole,” Schurmeier said.
During the hearing, Womble also challenged a Brown family attorney’s account of what occurs in the video. He said the video shows Brown driving forward and his vehicle making contact with law enforcement before any shots are fired.
Brown family attorney Chantel Cherry-Lassiter said the bodycam video the family saw shows Brown with his hands on the steering wheel of his car and not a threat to deputies, who fired as he backed his vehicle out and tried to drive away.
State law allows agencies to show the video to family members privately. Brown’s family on Monday viewed what they said was an edited, shortened clip of his death. Brown’s son Khalil Ferebee said the clip they saw showed his father being “executed.”
Multiple sheriff’s deputies serving arrest and search warrants at Brown’s home fired shots last Wednesday, Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten has said. Seven deputies are on leave while the State Bureau of Investigation looks into the case.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Brown’s family, railed against the lack of access to body camera footage.
“We believe they’re trying to hide the truth,” Crump said. “If they were making transparency a priority, we would all have seen that video by now.”
Brown’s warrants were tied to alleged drug offenses. On Tuesday, Crump tweeted a clip of what he called “the militarized police force rushing to kill Andrew Brown,” showing a truck with the word “sheriff” painted on the side and packed with armed personnel.
Crump also tweeted that the video was provided by the Elizabeth City Council, but USA TODAY could not verify whether the deputies portrayed in the video were the actual deputies on their way to serve Brown the warrant.
WAVY-TV reported the video was taken by a city-owned camera mounted on a utility pole on Brown’s street
On Tuesday, another night of protests continued in Elizabeth City. The mayor previously declared a state of emergency before any possible video release and a curfew was in effect.
“It seems like every week we say no justice, no peace, but nothing gets better. We should all be tired of this so it doesn’t become a weekly event. They have to improve the training. They have to improve community policing,” Kirk Rivers, brother to the Pasquotank County NAACP President Keith Rivers, said as he led a group of marchers.
Brown’s death came one day after a jury in Minneapolis found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd and a day before a funeral was held for Daunte Wright, a Black man in Minnesota fatally shot by an officer during a traffic stop.
A funeral for Brown is scheduled for Monday, where civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton will delivery the eulogy. Sharpton also delivered the eulogy at Wright’s funeral.
Family seeks answers:Why did police fatally shoot Andrew Brown Jr.?
Earlier Tuesday, Brown’s family’s attorneys released results from an autopsy the family commissioned. The independent exam showed Brown was shot four times in his arm and once in the back of his head.
“He left, tried to save his life and they continued to shoot and put a bullet in the back of his head,” family attorney Harry Daniels said.
“It’s obvious he was trying to get away. It’s obvious. And they’re going to shoot him in the back of the head?” Ferebee added.
The family’s attorneys said they welcomed the FBI’s involvement in the case to “overcome any local bias that may prevent justice from being served.” The bureau said it would work closed with the Justice Department “to determine whether federal laws were violated.”
No criminal charges have been filed in the case.
Womble said in a statement that state law gives him the power to decide on prosecuting crimes in his district and he stands “ready, willing and able to fulfill my statutory obligations.”
Cooper, though, said a special prosecutor should handle the case. “This would help assure the community and Mr. Brown’s family that a decision on pursuing criminal charges is conducted without bias,” Cooper said in a statement.
State Attorney General Josh Stein said his office has offered assistance to the local prosecutor and cannot intervene unless asked.
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz