ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — A North Carolina prosecutor says that a Black man killed by deputies hit law enforcement officers with his car before they opened fire.
District Attorney Andrew Womble told a judge at a hearing Wednesday that he viewed body camera video and disagreed with a characterization by attorneys for the family of Andrew Brown Jr. that his car was stationary when the shooting started.
Womble said the video shows that Brown’s car made contact with law enforcement twice before shots could be heard on the video.
“As it backs up, it does make contact with law enforcement officers,” he said, adding that the car stops again. “The next movement of the car is forward. It is in the direction of law enforcement and makes contact with law enforcement. It is then and only then that you hear shots.”
The FBI Charlotte Field Office has launched a civil rights probe into the death of Brown, as his family released an independent autopsy showing he was shot five times, including in the back of the head.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper called for a special prosecutor while pressure built on authorities to release body camera footage of last week’s shooting. A judge scheduled a hearing Wednesday to consider formal requests to make the video public.
Several people were arrested Tuesday night in Elizabeth City as protesters pushed back against Mayor Bettie Parker’s 8 p.m. curfew, ABC affiliate WVEC reported.
The curfew was added to the mayor’s state of emergency order in response to seven straight days of peaceful protests following Brown’s death.
At least five people were arrested Tuesday night.
The FBI’s Charlotte field office, which opened the civil rights investigation into Brown’s death, said in a statement that its agents planned to work closely with the Department of Justice “to determine whether federal laws were violated.”
“The FBI Charlotte Field Office has opened a federal civil rights investigation into the police-involved shooting death of Andrew Brown, Jr. Agents will work closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina and the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice to determine whether federal laws were violated. As this is an ongoing investigation, we cannot comment further.”
The announcement comes after Brown’s family and their attorneys announced the findings of an independent autopsy, which revealed he was shot five times, including in the back of the head.
The details about Brown’s wounds emerged amid increasing calls for the public release of body camera footage of last week’s shooting. A court hearing on access to the video was scheduled for Wednesday.
A pathologist hired by Brown’s family examined his body and noted four wounds to the right arm and one to the head, attorney Wayne Kendall said during a news conference. The state’s autopsy has not been released yet.
“So he was able to back up as these shots were coming into the vehicle,” attorney Wayne Kendall said. “He was able to back up turn his vehicle around, spin off across a vacant lot and at that time he was hit in the back of the head here, and that was the fatal bullet wound that was described in the death certificate.”
After being shot, the lawyers said Brown lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a tree. Kendall added the preliminary autopsy determined that Brown died within minutes of the bullet hitting him in the back of the head.
The family’s lawyers also released a copy of the death certificate, which lists the cause of death as a “penetrating gunshot wound of the head.” The certificate, signed by a paramedic services instructor who serves as a local medical examiner, describes the death as a homicide.
Brown was shot last Wednesday by deputies serving drug-related search and arrest warrants in the eastern North Carolina town of Elizabeth City.
The autopsy results come a day after Brown’s relatives were shown some body camera footage. Another family lawyer, Chantel Cherry-Lassiter, who viewed a 20-second portion of the video, said Monday that officers opened fire on Brown while he had his hands on the steering wheel of a car. She said she lost count of the numerous gunshots while viewing the footage.
Brown’s son Khalil Ferebee questioned why deputies had to shoot so many times at a man who, he said, posed no threat.
“Yesterday I said he was executed. This autopsy report shows me that was correct,” he said at the news conference. “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?”
The pathologist, North Carolina-based Dr. Brent Hall, noted a wound to the back of Brown’s head from an undetermined distance that penetrated his skull and brain. He said there was no exit wound.
“It was a kill shot to the back of the head,” family attorney Ben Crump said.
Two shots to Brown’s right arm penetrated the skin. Two others shots to the arm grazed him. The pathologist could not determine the distance from which they were fired.
The shooting prompted days of protests and calls for justice and transparency. Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II has said multiple deputies fired shots but released few details about what happened. Seven Pasquotank County deputies have been placed on leave while the State Bureau of Investigation probes the shooting.
While the body camera footage has not been made public, Crump released new video Tuesday afternoon showing at least five deputies in Elizabeth City in a pick up truck headed to Brown’s house moments before the encounter.
Local clergy members who called a news conference outside of an Elizabeth City church welcomed the FBI’s announcement.
“Amen. Because the people here are inept, incapable and incompetent,” said the Rev. William Barber II, who leads the Poor People’s Campaign, referring to local authorities.
Brown’s lawyers also welcomed the federal agency’s involvement: “We have great faith that this caliber of an investigation will prevent any obscuring of the facts released to the Brown family and public and will overcome any local bias that may prevent justice from being served.”
The State Bureau of Investigation began a probe of the shooting shortly after it happened. It initially said that it would turn its findings over to the local district attorney, as is standard under state laws and procedures.
But Cooper urged the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle the state’s 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.
GOV. ROY COOPER’S STATEMENT:
“In the interest of justice and confidence in the judicial system, I believe a special prosecutor should handle all matters regarding the shooting in Pasquotank County. This would help assure the community and Mr. Brown’s family that a decision on pursuing criminal charges is conducted without bias. This position is consistent with the change in the law recommended by our Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice which calls for a special prosecutor in police shootings, and I believe the law should be changed to help ensure it.
Read the full report of the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice here.”
State Attorney General Josh Stein said state law puts control of criminal prosecutions in the hands of the local district attorney, so his office cannot intervene unless asked. He said he has offered assistance to the local prosecutor, but has only received an acknowledgment.
“For my office to play a role in the prosecution, the District Attorney must request our assistance,” Stein said.
District Attorney Andrew Womble, who oversees Pasquotank County, issued a statement noting 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.”
Wednesday’s court hearing on the video will consider petitions to release the footage, including filings by a media coalition and by a county attorney on behalf of the sheriff. A North Carolina law that took effect in 2016 allows law enforcement agencies to show body camera video privately to a victim’s family but generally requires a court to approve any public release.
It’s not clear how soon a judge could rule, or how quickly the video would be released if the release is approved. In similar cases, it has sometimes taken weeks for the full legal process to play out.
The slow movement has prompted an outcry from protesters, the family’s lawyers and racial justice advocates, who noted that law enforcement agencies in other states have moved faster. In Columbus, Ohio, the day before Brown was shot, body camera footage was released within hours of an officer fatally shooting a 16-year-old Black girl who was swinging a knife at another girl.
Democrats in the North Carolina General Assembly filed a measure this month proposing that body camera video be released within 48 hours unless a law enforcement agency asks a court to delay its distribution. But the legislation faces long odds with the GOP controlling both chambers of the Legislature.
A key Republican lawmaker, state Sen. Danny Britt, issued a statement saying GOP lawmakers are open to considering improvements to the current law. But with a hearing set for Wednesday, he said, the process has had little time to unfold.
The situation in Elizabeth City has highlighted an effort to change the way North Carolina handles body camera video.
Currently, a judge has to sign off on the process and many feel that slows down the process. Under a proposed bill in the Senate, it would be put on law enforcement agencies to release police video within 48 hours after an incident.
Mecklenburg County State Senator Mujtaba Mohammed is one of the sponsors.
“When I have conversations in the halls of the North Carolina General Assembly, I think most Republicans and Democrats realize that we’ve got to do more to increase transparency and build trust with law enforcement,” Mohammed said.
The Fraternal Order of Police does not support this change, saying they feel existing law does more to protect privacy and the integrity of the investigation.
Statement from SBI Director on Andrew Brown shooting
I want to confirm that Special Agents of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) are continuing to conduct a comprehensive, objective, and thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of Andrew Brown, Jr. It is customary that the State Bureau of Investigation investigate incidents of officer-involved shootings in North Carolina at the request of local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.
As an agency, we share the family and community’s sense of urgency to understand precisely what occurred during this incident. Our role is to pursue the truth and to ultimately share the results of our work with the prosecutor. To that end, I want to assure that the full resources of the NC SBI are being utilized to pursue an independent, thorough, and impartial investigation into the matter of Mr. Brown’s death. The family, the community, and all impacted by this event deserve no less and the SBI is fully committed to making sure that the true facts are known, no matter where those facts lead us.
As far as any relevant video, we defer to the local authorities and the courts to make that determination as guided by State law. The SBI 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.
Please know we will continue to investigate this matter with a full commitment to obtaining truth and justice for all concerned. That is central to the mission of this agency and will certainly be upheld with respect to the timely investigation of this matter.
Anyone with material information regarding this case is encouraged to call the NC SBI at 1-888-NCISAAC or email us at NCISAAC@ncsbi.gov.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.