Attorneys for Andrew Brown, Jr., a Black man shot and killed in an all-too-common encounter with law enforcement agencies, are demanding that the district attorney in the case recuse himself. Pasquotank District Attorney Andrew Womble has implied in court that authorities who have since been identified as Investigator Daniel Meads, Deputy Robert Morgan, and Corporal Aaron Lewellyn only fired at Brown on April 21 because he was driving toward deputies. Civil rights attorneys Ben Crump, Harry Daniels, and Bakari Sellers, who are representing the Brown family, cited a previous professional relationship with officers involved in the case in the attorneys’ demand for recusal.
Brown was shot five times, once in the back of his head, when Pasquotank County deputies attempting to serve a drug warrant for his arrest shot at him repeatedly. Attorneys for Brown’s family are advocating for the release of complete footage of the deadly encounter with authorities. They so far have only released 20 seconds of body camera video privately to the family and its attorneys. That video reportedly showed Brown with his hands on the steering wheel of his vehicle when deputies started shooting at him, attorneys said.
Attorney Chance Lynch, who is part of the Brown family’s legal team, said upon viewing slightly longer clips of dash-camera and body-camera footage on Tuesday that at all times in the body-camera footage Brown’s hands remained visible. He may’ve been on the phone, but he was no threat to law enforcement officers, Lynch said during a news conference on Tuesday. When a deputy fired at Brown, he reversed his car “several feet, if not yards away, from the police who were there” and turned his wheel left away from authorities, Lynch said. “At no point did we ever see Mr. Brown make contact with law enforcement,” Lynch added. “We were able to see where they possibly reached out to make contact to him, but we did not see any actions on Mr. Brown’s part where he made contact with them or tried to go in their direction. In fact, he did just the opposite.”
Lynch described Brown driving away from police and across a yard to the side of his house as another shot was fired. His car left tracks in the mud as it accelerated, and police officers stood on the pavement “unloading their weapons,” Lynch said.
“There were so many shots that we found difficulty in counting the number of shots that his vehicle received,” the attorney said. “At some point there was a final shot, where it appeared that at that final shot Mr. Brown lost control.”
Attorneys for the Brown family said they will continue pushing authorities to release all video in the incident, which amounts to nearly two hours of footage. The family was shown less than 20 minutes of video. “We will move fairly quickly on that matter to go before the court to make our arguments to get the videos released,” attorney Harry Daniels said.
“We need justice for Andrew Brown Jr., and we’ll only get that through a fair and impartial investigation,” Crump said in a statement his firm tweeted on Monday. “The involved officers have close relationships with District Attorney Andrew Womble, making him unfit to lead the investigation into Andrew’s killing.
”While we have yet to review the bodycam footage despite a judge’s order, what we do know is crystal clear: Andrew Brown Jr., was shot five times by these officers as he was driving away. We will not stop until we get answers and justice for Andrew and his family, and that begins and ends with an impartial and transparent investigation.”
The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation is leading the investigation into Brown’s death, and the FBI has launched a civil rights probe of its own in the shooting. It has become the subject of daily protests for justice in Elizabeth City.
Sellers called Womble’s involvement in the case a “miscarriage of justice” for Brown, his family, and residents of Elizabeth City. “Andrew was assassinated by these officers as he was driving away, posing little threat,” Sellers said. “As we still have yet to review the bodycam footage in this case, it’s clear that a transparent investigation is not at all guaranteed. We can’t leave anything in this case to chance – D.A. Womble must recuse himself.”
In court on April 28, Womble told Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Foster, who is visiting from Pitt County, that Brown’s car was “stationary when law enforcement officers grabbed the door handle” shouting commands. “The car goes in a reverse position. The law enforcement officer is forced to release the door handle, and the car is backing up,” Womble said. He claimed that the car twice made contact with law enforcement officers and it’s only upon the second time that they started firing. “It is then and only then that you hear shots,” Womble said. The court hearing was held in response to more than 20 local and national news outlets petitioning for the public release of body-camera footage, WAVY-TV reported. “The release at this time would create a serious threat to the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice,” Foster said in his decision to delay the public release.
The same judge wrote in an order on May 6 that the Brown family will be allowed to see about 19 minutes of video featuring Brown’s encounter with deputies and Elizabeth City police officers. That video, however, is only a portion of nearly two hours of footage authorities have access to in the incident, including footage from five body-camera videos and one dash-camera video. “The portions of the videos withheld are found to not contain images of the deceased, and thus are not appropriate for disclosure at this time,” Foster wrote in the order. “Nothing in this Order shall prevent the reconsideration for release of the videos at a later time, upon the conclusion of both internal and criminal investigations arising from these incidents.”
Sheriff Tommy Wooten II said in a statement ABC-affiliated WTDV obtained that he has carefully read the judge’s order and will “certainly comply.” “Because we’re continuing to be as transparent as we can under state law, we will be allowing the family members identified in the judge’s order to view the specified videos much sooner than the judge’s deadline requires,” Wooten said. The family is expected to view the video at 3 PM ET with a news conference to follow, WTDV reported.
The case, although not at this point marked with actionable items like charges against the deputies involved, has garnered widespread public attention for both racial issues suspected to be at play and questions of transparency in the investigation.
Michael Harriot, a senior writer at The Root, captured several social media screenshots of Foster’s over the years that seem to foreshadow the judge’s position in Brown’s death. “The right-wing, mask-resistant judge seems to be a big fan of the ‘thin blue line,’ anyone who shoots a Black person and police in general,” Harriot wrote. “However, Foster doesn’t seem to have much affection for Muslims, protesters or the media in general.” In one post Harriot highlighted, Foster reportedly called the press “moronic,” and in another he is accused of saying George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a widely covered racial profiling shooting, “should have never been charged.” “The jury did the right thing,” Foster reportedly penned on July 13, 2013, after Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder.
Although North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has yet to point to Foster’s problematic history, the governor called for a special prosecutor in a statement on April 27. “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,” Cooper said. “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.”