Judge denies media request to publicly release body cam video in Andrew Brown, Jr. shooting

Updated: Apr. 28, 2021 at 6:09 PM EDT
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ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (WITN/AP/WBTV) - A judge ruled Wednesday that body camera video of the fatal officer-involved shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. should be disclosed to Brown’s family, but not released publicly.

The court denied the media request to release the body cam video, finding that the media does not qualify to seek release under the law.

WBTV and about 15 other media companies sought the release of the video. The family, protesters and civil rights advocates have been making the same plea. There is a North Carolina law that says these can only be released by a judge.

Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Foster heard arguments on the public release of the four bodycam videos Wednesday morning.

Judge Foster said the video should be disclosed to Brown’s family within 30-45 days. The judge ordered deputies to blur or redact any identifying information for deputies in the video.

The hearing began at 10 a.m. and WBTV learned a short time later that the judge would allow livestreaming of the hearing.

“The officers are very distraught over what happened. They feel for the family of Andrew Brown Jr.” Their lawyer said. “We believe the shooting was justified.”

“The petitioners are not here to indict or vindicate law enforcement and they are not here to indict or vindicate Andrew Brown Jr.,” attorney Mike Tadych said in opening remarks on behalf of media coalition.

The District Attorney asked the judge to release video in 30 days

DA Andrew Womble said the video should either be released during a trial if he brings charges or at a press conference if he decides to not bring charges. Earlier arguments were made that releasing the video could interfere with a fair trial and jeopardize the safety of the officer involved.

Attorneys Ben Crump, along with co-counsels Bakari Sellers, Harry Daniels and Chantel Cherry-Lassiter released a statement responding to the judge’s ruling.

“We are deeply disappointed by the judge’s decision to not make the body camera footage from the involved officers available to be viewed by the public. In this modern civil rights crisis where we see Black people killed by the police everywhere we look, video evidence is the key to discerning the truth and getting the well-deserved justice for victims of senseless murders. Just look at George Floyd - if the world had not seen that clear and disturbing footage, there might not have even been an ounce of accountability for those officers. We refuse to be discouraged and vow to keep the pressure on these agencies until we get to the truth. We will not stop saying his name. Andrew Brown, Jr.,” the statement read.

Sheriff Tommy Wooten said he was disappointed by the judge’s ruling as he wanted the video released.

“Although we’re unable to show the public what happened right now, the independent investigators are working to complete their investigation. As soon as all of the important facts are given to me, I will act quickly to ensure accountability and I’ll be as transparent as I possibly can with the public,” Sheriff Wooten said.

During a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper said he would support changing North Carolina’s body camera law. “I believe this video should be released as quickly as possible,” Cooper said.

An attorney who watched the video called the shooting of Brown an “execution.”

Chantel Lassiter said Brown was in his driveway with his hands on the steering wheel of his car. “They ran up to his car shooting,” said Lassiter.

The attorney said Brown still had his hands on the steering wheel as he backed out of the driveway, away from the deputies.

Andrew’s son, Khalil Ferebee, said his father was executed by Pasquotank County deputies after watching a short clip of police body camera footage Monday afternoon at the county sheriff’s office.

Brown was shot last Wednesday morning as deputies were trying to serve a search warrant at a home on Perry Street in Elizabeth City.

Sheriff Tommy Wooten said seven deputies have been placed on administrative leave while three have since resigned. The SBI is investigating the shooting and their results will be turned over to the district attorney.

The FBI has opened a federal civil rights investigation into the officer-involved shooting.

Agents with the FBI Charlotte Field Office 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.

Governor Roy Cooper is urging that a special prosecutor handle all matters regarding the shooting. The governor provided a statement Tuesday afternoon.

“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,” Gov. Cooper said.

Attorneys for Brown’s family say an independent autopsy showed the cause of death was a gunshot to the back of Brown’s head.

Late Monday, Sheriff Wooten & Chief Deputy Daniel Fogg said the county attorney filed a motion asking a Superior Court judge to release the body camera video.

“This tragic incident was quick and over in less than 30 seconds and body cameras are shaky and sometimes hard to decipher,” said the sheriff.”

Andrew Brown Jr., 42, was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies serving warrants in Elizabeth...
Andrew Brown Jr., 42, was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies serving warrants in Elizabeth City, N.C. on Wed., April 21.(Facebook via CNN Newsource)

“Let’s be clear, this was an execution,” Lassiter said. “I just want to make it clear, they were still shooting at him after his car had already crashed into a tree.”

The family was supposed to see the video at 11:30 a.m., but that was delayed as the county said it had to blur some of the video involved.

Attorneys said the family was only allowed to see twenty seconds from one body camera.

County attorney Michael Cox earlier today said while state law permits a private viewing to the family, it does allow them to blur some faces on the video to protect an active internal investigation. In a statement, Cox said the county received the family’s request Sunday evening, “we began working immediately to make that happen as soon as possible,” Cox said.

Monday morning, Elizabeth City Mayor Bettie Parker issued a State of Emergency because of concerns there might be civil unrest once the video was shown to the family.

A two-block area around the courthouse and sheriff’s office has been cordoned off to vehicles.

North Carolina deputies who fatally shot Brown outside of his house obtained the search warrant that brought them there after investigators recorded him selling small amounts of cocaine and methamphetamine to an informant, according to court documents.

The fatal shooting of Brown has prompted days of protests, calls for the public release of deputy body camera video and civil rights leaders decrying that warrants shouldn’t lead to a fatal shooting.

Sheriff Wooten said that multiple deputies fired shots. Elizabeth City police were not involved in the shooting.

The warrant released Monday was obtained by the Pasquotank County sheriff’s office and signed by a local judge to allow the search of Brown’s Elizabeth City home. It said that an investigator in nearby Dare County was told by the informant that the person had been purchasing crack cocaine and other drugs for over a year from Brown. The informant described purchasing drugs at the house that was the target of the search.

The warrant said that in March, local narcotics officers used the informant to conduct controlled purchases of methamphetamine and cocaine from Brown on two separate occasions. The warrant says both drug transactions were recorded using audio and video equipment.

The search warrant said investigators believed Brown was storing drugs in the home or two vehicles. The document, which indicated the search wasn’t completed, didn’t list anything found.

The arrest warrants, which were released last week, charged him with possession with intent to sell and deliver 3 grams of each of the drugs.

Calls have been growing to release deputy body camera footage of the incident, which is not public record in North Carolina. A judge must generally sign off on any release of body camera video. Wooten has said he would ask a local judge to allow the release of the footage. A coalition of media has also petitioned the court for its release, and city officials also plan to.

County Commission Chairman Lloyd Griffin asked the community in a press release on Sunday to be patient in the release of the body camera video involving the shooting death of Andrew Brown, Jr.

“Rushing the gathering of evidence and interviewing of witnesses would hurt any future legal case that might be brought in the wake of this tragedy,” Griffin said. “Justice, when done right, takes time.”

Griffin referenced the police shooting of Danquirs Franklin in Charlotte in 2019 and said it took three weeks for body camera footage of that to be legally released. Griffin said he hopes it doesn’t take that long for the Andrew Brown, Jr. body camera video to be released but said everyone must follow the legal procedures.

“The commissioners support Sheriff Wooten, who is trying to maintain public safety in our county while also being responsive to the needs of the Brown family and those concerned about this shooting,” Griffin said. “It’s easy to criticize and it’s hard to lead.”

The full statement can be read below:

“Good afternoon,

Our entire county leadership grieves with the family of Andrew Brown, Jr., and our prayers go out to them. Everyone should want a thorough, fair, and proper investigation into exactly what happened when deputies attempted to serve the arrest warrant and search warrant at Mr. Brown’s home. Sadly, some irresponsible voices are calling for a rushed investigation and rush to judgement. Rushing the gathering of evidence and interviewing of witnesses would hurt any future legal case that might be brought in the wake of this tragedy. Justice, when done right, takes time. People — including some politicians — who want to score political points or become cable news celebrities too often forget that, which could negatively impact the investigation.

For example, in the tragic police shooting of Danquirs Franklin in Charlotte in 2019, it took three weeks before the body camera footage could be legally released. We all hope it won’t take that long in this case, but everyone must follow the legal procedures. Calling for North Carolina law to be ignored is irresponsible. We ask our community to be patient.

The commissioners support Sheriff Wooten, who is trying to maintain public safety in our county while also being responsive to the needs of the Brown family and those concerned about this shooting. It’s easy to criticize and it’s hard to lead.”

Lloyd Griffin

Chairman of the Pasquotank County Board of Commissioners

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