By BEN FINLEY and JONATHAN DREW
ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina prosecutor said Tuesday that sheriff’s deputies were justified in fatally shooting Andrew Brown Jr. because he struck a deputy with his car and nearly ran him over while ignoring commands to show his hands and get out of the vehicle.
District Attorney Andrew Womble said at a news conference that Brown used his car as a “deadly weapon,” causing Pasquotank County deputies to believe it was necessary to use deadly force.
Womble, who acknowledged Brown wasn’t armed with guns or other weapons, said the deputies will face no criminal charges after he reviewed a state investigation of the shooting, which sparked weeks of protests. Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II said in a video statement Tuesday afternoon that the deputies will keep their jobs but will be “disciplined and retrained.”
Brown’s family released a statement calling Womble’s decision “both an insult and a slap in the face.” Attorneys for the family who watched body camera footage have said repeatedly that he was trying to drive away from deputies serving drug-related warrants and posed no threat.
The prosecutor declined to directly release copies of bodycam video of the April 21 shooting, but he played portions of the video during the news conference that media outlets broadcast live.
The multiple angles of the footage, projected onto a screen behind Womble, depicted a chaotic scene of about 44 seconds. After six deputies approach Brown’s car with guns drawn, the video shows one of them putting his hand on the driver’s side door, then yelling and recoiling as Brown backs up. The speed at which he backs up isn’t clear.
Seconds later, the same deputy appears to be in the path of the car as Brown moves forward. The deputy appears to avoid a direct hit after pushing his hand onto the moving car’s hood and quickly moving aside. Gunshots are then heard, and officers appear to continue firing as the car moves away from them.
The quality of the projected video, even replayed later on news websites that filmed it, made it hard for a viewer to glean the level of detail described by either the Brown family or prosecutor when they watched the footage in person. The family continued its calls Tuesday for direct release of the video, which would make longer and higher-quality versions public.
During his news conference, Womble said the deputy who tried to open Brown’s car door was jerked over the hood when the car backed up, and the deputy’s body was struck by the vehicle. The deputy then had to push off the hood with his hand “to avoid being run over” when Brown drove forward, Womble said. He said that was the moment when the first shot was fired by a fellow deputy.
“I find that the facts of this case 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 put their lives in danger,” Womble said, referring to Brown’s car. He added that “Brown posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers and others.”
“Federal courts have held that the Constitution simply does not require police to gamble with their lives in the face of a serious threat of harm,” he said.
Though Womble said at least two deputies were endangered by Brown’s driving, the sheriff has said his deputies weren’t injured.
In a statement released a couple of hours after the news conference, attorneys for Brown’s families decried Womble’s conclusion.
“To say this shooting was justified, despite the known facts, is both an insult and a slap in the face to Andrew’s family, the Elizabeth City community, and to rational people everywhere,” the statement said. “Not only was the car moving away from officers, but four of them did not fire their weapons — clearly they did not feel that their lives were endangered. And the bottom line is that Andrew was killed by a shot to the back of the head.”
Many of the two dozen people who gathered outside the municipal building where Womble held his news conference said they were disappointed by his decision. Some said they would hold a protest march in Elizabeth City on Tuesday evening.
Keith Rivers, president of Pasquotank County’s NAACP chapter, said he was frustrated and angry.
“Andrew Brown Jr. is the victim,” Rivers said. “It’s not a district attorney’s job to defend sheriff’s deputies. It is his job to get justice for the victim. It is the court’s job to decide whether or not it was reasonable or unreasonable.”
The State Bureau of Investigation, which conducted the state review, issued a statement Tuesday noting that it investigates the facts but “does not make any determinations as to whether criminal charges should be filed.” The statement said its investigative report isn’t a public record and won’t be released.
The three deputies who fired shots — Investigator Daniel Meads, Deputy Robert Morgan and Cpl. Aaron Lewellyn — have been on leave since it happened. The sheriff’s office said Morgan is Black, while Meads and Lewellyn are white. Womble said the deputies have no prior use-of-force complaints.
Four other deputies involved in serving the warrants were reinstated after the sheriff said it was clear they didn’t fire shots.
A lawyer who represented some of the deputies during a court hearing on petitions to release the video didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday.
Womble said a medical examiner working for the state found that Brown died from multiple gunshot wounds after being hit in the back of the head and right shoulder. Womble said the medical examiner, who spoke to him by phone, also described superficial “abrasions” to his arm, leg and back from bullet shrapnel. The state’s written autopsy hasn’t been released yet.
Two deputies fired nine shots from Glock handguns and the third fired five rounds from an AR-15 rifle, according to Womble, based on spent shell casings.
An independent autopsy released by the family found that Brown was hit by bullets five times, including once in the back of the head.