By BEN FINLEY and JONATHAN DREW Associated Press
ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) — A Black man killed by North Carolina deputies hit law enforcement officers with his car before they opened fire, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
District Attorney Andrew Womble told a judge at a hearing that he viewed body camera video and disagreed with a characterization by attorneys for the family of Andrew Brown Jr. They said he did not try to drive away until deputies opened fire. A family attorney who viewed the video also said Brown did not drive toward officers or pose any threat to them.
Calling the family attorney’s description “patently false,” Womble said the video shows that Brown’s car made contact with law enforcement twice before shots could be heard on the video.
“As it backs up, it does make contact with law enforcement officers,” he said, adding that the car stops again. “The next movement of the car is forward. It is in the direction of law enforcement and makes contact with law enforcement. It is then and only then that you hear shots.”
Womble said that officers shouted commands and tried to open the car before any shots were fired.
The Pasquotank County sheriff, Tommy Wooten II, has previously indicated that none of the deputies were injured. At a news conference hours after the shooting, he said, “They’re fine,” when asked about the deputies.
Womble argued that body camera video from the shooting, a portion of which was shown to the family on Monday, should be kept from the public for another month so that state investigators can make progress on their probe of the shooting.
The hearing comes amid pressure on authorities to release the video and calls for a special prosecutor to take the state’s case over from Womble. The judge said he planned to issue a decision Wednesday after a short recess.
On Tuesday, Brown’s family released an independent autopsy showing he was shot five times, including in the back of the head.
The FBI’s Charlotte field office, which opened the civil rights investigation into Brown’s death, said in a statement Tuesday that its agents planned to work closely with the Department of Justice “to determine whether federal laws were violated.”
The independent autopsy was performed Sunday by a pathologist hired by Brown’s family. The exam noted four wounds to the right arm and one to the head. The state’s autopsy has not been released yet.
The family’s lawyers also released a copy of the death certificate, which lists the cause of death as a “penetrating gunshot wound of the head.” The certificate, signed by a paramedic services instructor who serves as a local medical examiner, describes the death as a homicide.
Brown was shot last Wednesday by deputies serving drug-related search and arrest warrants at his house in the North Carolina town of Elizabeth City, about 160 miles northeast of Raleigh.
The autopsy results come a day after Brown’s relatives were shown a 20-second clip of footage from one deputy’s body camera.
One of the Brown family lawyers, Chantel Cherry-Lassiter, who viewed the video, said Monday that shots were heard from the instant the clip started with Brown’s car in his driveway and his hands on the steering wheel. She said the video showed Brown trying to drive away but posing no threat to officers after they ran up to his car and began shooting.
“He finally decides to try to get away and he backs out, not toward officers at all,” she told reporters Monday.
The State Bureau of Investigation began a probe of the shooting shortly after it happened. It initially said that it would turn its findings over to the local district attorney, as is standard under state laws and procedures.
But the governor, a Democrat, urged the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle the state’s case.
“This would help assure the community and Mr. Brown’s family that a decision on pursuing criminal charges is conducted without bias,” Cooper said in a statement.
State Attorney General Josh Stein said state law puts control of criminal prosecutions in the hands of the local district attorney, so his office cannot intervene unless asked. He said he has offered assistance to the local prosecutor, but has only received an acknowledgment.
Womble, who oversees Pasquotank County, issued a statement Tuesday noting that state law gives him the power to decide on prosecuting crimes in his district and he stands “ready willing and able to fulfill my statutory obligations.”
The judge overseeing Wednesday’s court hearing on the video is considering petitions to release the footage, including filings by a media coalition and by the county attorney on behalf of the sheriff. A North Carolina law that took effect in 2016 allows law enforcement agencies to show body camera video privately to a victim’s family, but it generally requires a court to approve any public release.
It’s not clear how soon a judge could rule or how quickly the video would be released if the release is approved. In similar cases, it has sometimes taken weeks for the full legal process to play out.
Drew reported from Durham, North Carolina.