The district attorney for Pasquotank County will not bring criminal charges against sheriff’s deputies who shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City — a move likely to increase tension and protest over police violence.
District Attorney Andrew Womble announced the news while discussing the state’s investigation at a news conference in the county’s public safety building Tuesday.
Womble said Brown’s death “while tragic, was justified” because his actions caused three deputies to “reasonably believe it was necessary to use deadly force to protect themselves and others.”
Brown died April 21 after being shot by sheriff’s deputies who came to his house to serve arrest and search warrants related to drug charges.
Law enforcement involvement began in the weeks prior to the shooting when a detective with the Dare County Sheriff’s Office received information from a reliable confidential source that Brown was selling drugs in Dare County, Womble said. The detective contacted Pasquotank County and confirmed Brown’s identity and that he was a known drug dealer, Womble said.
The two felony arrest warrants for the sale of controlled substances and search warrants came as a result of undercover buys from Brown of cocaine and heroin that was laced with fentanyl, Womble said.
The morning of the incident, the deputies were briefed on Brown’s criminal history and interactions with law enforcement, Womble said. He noted Brown’s resisting arrest charges and convictions for assault, assault with a deadly weapon and assault inflicting serious injury convictions dating back to 1995.
Womble said deputies were told that Brown was not known to carry weapons. There were no weapons found in the vehicle.
Brown’s felony record did not play into Womble’s assessment of his threat to officers, but “the fact he was dealing heroin and fentanyl that is killing people on a daily basis was not lost on me,” the district attorney said.
Deputies ‘perceived a threat’
Brown was sitting in his car in his driveway, attempting to flee, when he was shot by deputies who arrived at the scene in full tactical gear.
Womble described a 44-second encounter in which seven deputies blocked Brown in his driveway, trying to serve the warrants. He showed video clips and photos from body camera footage to help explain the incident.
Brown ignored orders to raise his hands and get out of his car, and he struck a deputy with the vehicle while trying to escape, Womble said.
“Deputies immediately perceived a threat,” the district attorney said, adding, “The Constitution simply does not require officers to gamble with their lives.”
The officers used deadly force when “a violent felon used a deadly weapon to place their lives in danger,” Womble said.
He said the officers were threatened when Brown backed away while Deputy Joel Lunsford had his hand on the door of Brown’s vehicle, pulling the deputy off his feet onto the hood.
“I believe they would have been within their rights to shoot at that moment,” Womble said, noting that Lunsford “clearly yells.”
Womble said Lunsford also had to brace himself as he spun to the left to get out of the way.
Womble said the officers were not required to wait for injury and the threat alone justified deadly force.
Multiple shots fired into vehicle
Multiple shots were fired into the car, but Womble saw no evidence that the number of shots fired was excessive. Fourteen casings were recovered in the driveway and one ricocheted, hitting a neighboring house.
Womble said officers were waiting across the street in unmarked cars near the spot where Brown crashed into a tree. Brown’s car headed toward one of their unmarked vans, but deputies were also firing in that direction.
The district attorney explained that the fatal shooting was justified because of the severity of the crime at issue, Brown’s actions to actively resist arrest, and the immediate threat he posed to officers by driving his car as they surrounded him.
“My review of the incident indicates there is no evidence that deputies who fired the fatal shots acted in any manner that is inconsistent with the threat they perceived,” Womble said, “and certainly no evidence that the deputies acted in any way contrary to or in violation of North Carolina law.”
A private autopsy commissioned by Brown’s family showed he was hit by at least five bullets, with the fatal wound from a shot into the back of his head. But at Tuesday’s press conference, Womble said Brown was shot twice, in the shoulder and the back of the head, with shrapnel wounds elsewhere. He said the first bullet entered the front windshield of Brown’s car.
Womble said the final autopsy report and toxicology reports have not been filed. But he said the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy found a baggie of an “off-white, rock-like substance,” which he said was consistent with crystal meth.
Womble said the videos shown to the media Tuesday were some of the same ones shown to the family but that they were truncated before officers removed Brown from the car. Womble said he wanted to spare the family the pain of having his body on display if the videos were shared by the press.
Protests over Andrew Brown’s death
As the press conference reached an hour, protesters could be heard outside the sheriff’s office.
Womble said he expects some will be unhappy with his decision but he made it based on facts and law rather than public opinion.
He said he resisted calls for a special prosecutor because he was elected to do “exactly” this job, and an outside investigator was not.
Asked what recourse the public has if unhappy with his decision, Womble said, “The ballot box.”
Womble has not spoken to Brown’s family because his relationship with their attorneys has been poor, he said.
Attorney Bakari Sellers, one of the national lawyers who had represented the family, tweeted that Brown was not using his vehicle as a weapon.
“The ‘contact’ was minimal at best & initiated by officers,” the tweet said. “He was beyond law enforcement when multiple shots were fired, including kill shot to the back of head. 4 officers didn’t shoot, didn’t feel life was in danger.”
Seven deputies were placed on administrative leave following the incident. Since then, Sheriff Tommy Wooten said a preliminary investigation showed three officers fired their weapons and the other four are back on active duty.
The shooting sparked peaceful protests in the city, with local residents marching alongside activists from across North Carolina and the nation. Protesters have demanded that the video footage from deputies’ body cameras and a police vehicle’s dash camera be made public.
The official requests were initially denied by a judge but could be reconsidered following the outcome of the state’s investigation. Brown’s family and an attorney were allowed to view a portion of the footage under that judge’s order.
It’s customary in North Carolina for the State Bureau of Investigation to look into shootings by law enforcement. The agency then turns over its findings to the local district attorney to determine whether charges are warranted.
In a tweet on April 28, a week after the shooting, SBI Director Robert L. Shurmeier promised 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,” he wrote.