Judge declines immediate release of video in North Carolina shooting

By Richard Fausset and Giullia McDonell Nieto Del Río

For a week now, protesters in Elizabeth City, a small, mostly Black community in eastern North Carolina, have taken to the streets, demanding to see the body camera video of the fatal encounter between county sheriff’s deputies and an African American man. Many had hoped that a court hearing Wednesday would prompt the release of the footage and bring some clarity to the matter.

Instead, Judge Jeff Foster of Pitt County Superior Court delayed the public release of the videos for at least 30 days, citing concerns that their release could compromise the investigation into the April 21 killing of the man, Andrew Brown Jr.

In arguing against their release, R. Andrew Womble, the local district attorney who oversees cases in a seven-county region, told the court that the videos show Brown making contact with deputies with his car as he tried to drive away, moments after they arrived to serve drug-related search and arrest warrants. The Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office deputies then opened fire on Brown, Womble said.

Womble’s description contradicted the earlier account by a lawyer for Brown’s family, Chantel Cherry-Lassiter, who was allowed to see a 20-second snippet of the footage this week. That footage, she said, shows deputies “run up to his vehicle shooting,” after which Brown “finally decides to try to get away” in a way that did not endanger anyone, as officers continued to shoot at him.

The hearing ensured that a community reeling from confusion and frustration over the shooting would have to endure more of it. Protests were nearly guaranteed to continue Wednesday night, said Keith Rivers, president of the local NAACP chapter. “Oh, we ain’t stopping,” he said.

Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who is leading a large legal team representing Brown’s relatives, said the family was “deeply disappointed” in the judge’s ruling, which delayed transparency in a case that came on the heels of other police shootings in which video evidence was made quickly available.

He alluded to how smartphone and police body cameras have fueled an evidence-based revolution in the way the country considers long-standing complaints by Black people that they are too often subjected to abuse by the police.

“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 well-deserved justice for victims of senseless murders,” Crump said in a statement. “Just look at the murder of George Floyd.”

Under North Carolina law, police body camera videos can be released to the public only after the approval of a judge. This week, separate petitions requesting the release of the footage were filed by the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office and lawyers for a group of media outlets, including The New York Times.

Foster denied the release altogether to the media outlets, saying they did not have legal standing to request the video. C. Amanda Martin, one of the lawyers for the news outlets, said that she believed that the judge’s ruling was incorrect, and that an appeal was planned.

But Foster also ruled that authorities must show the footage to Brown’s adult son, Khalil Ferebee, and his immediate family within one degree of kinship, plus one lawyer licensed to practice law in North Carolina. The judge said the family could receive redacted versions of the videos from four body cameras and one dashboard camera within 10 days.

Wayne Kendall, one of the lawyers for the family, said the decision represented “somewhat of a partial victory.”

On Monday, lawyers and family members said they were incensed that they were able to view only 20 seconds of footage that one body camera captured when a SWAT-style team of deputies arrived to serve two drug warrants on Brown, 42, who had a substantial history of drug-related arrests. Seven sheriff’s deputies were placed on administrative leave after the shooting, and a private autopsy of Brown determined that he was shot five times, including in the head.

Wednesday’s hearing took place in Pasquotank County’s courthouse in downtown Elizabeth City, where many streets have been closed to traffic over fears of unrest. The hearing in the heavily guarded courthouse was closed to the public, although members of Brown’s family were allowed to attend. Roughly a dozen of his relatives lined up on the sidewalk, eventually marching through a large crowd of reporters and TV cameras as they made their way inside.

After the hearing, Lillie Brown-Clark, Brown’s aunt, said she had a hard time believing Womble’s assertion that Brown’s car had made contact with deputies. “No,” she said. “Not buying it. Thank you.”

In the courtroom, H.P. Williams, a lawyer for the deputies, said the deputies were “distraught.” He also said the shooting was justified.

Michael Tadych, the other lawyer for the media outlets, argued that the release of the video footage would help people decide which of the conflicting descriptions was accurate.

Womble, who is running for a Superior Court judge position, said it would make the most sense for him to release the videos in 30 days if he decided not to bring charges against the deputies after the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation finished looking into the case.

If he did decide to bring charges, he said, he would ask the court to keep the videos from the public until they were introduced at trial.

Releasing the video now, he said, would allow potential jurors to draw conclusions about the case, and hinder a fair trial.

“What I do know is that you cannot swing a skunk in front of a group of people, and then ask them not to smell it,” he said.

On Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, called for the appointment of a special prosecutor who would “help assure the community and Brown’s family that a decision on pursuing criminal charges is conducted without bias.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Sheriff Tommy Wooten II, who has faced calls from the local NAACP to resign, reiterated that he was committed to “transparency” and said he was disappointed that the footage would not be released immediately.

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