Judge Declines Immediate Release of Video in North Carolina Shooting

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Andrew Brown Jr. was fatally shot last week by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies.




Judge Rejects Immediate Release of Video in Andrew Brown Jr. Shooting

A North Carolina judge declined a petition for the immediate release of police body-camera video in the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr., but approved disclosure of redacted videos to family and one lawyer.

There is evidence that the release would advance a compelling public interest. There is evidence that the recording contains information that is otherwise confidential or exempt from disclosure or release under state or federal law. The court finds that the petitioner is not a person requesting or seeking to obtain evidence to determine legal issues in a potential court proceeding. The court finds No. 4 that it would reveal information regarding a person that is of a highly sensitive personal nature. No. 5, that the release may harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of a person. No. 6, that the release would create a serious threat to the fair and impartial orderly administration of justice. And No. 7, that confidentiality is necessary at this point to protect either — to protect an active internal and criminal investigation or potential internal criminal investigation. The court therefore finds that a good cause does not exist for granting the petition of the media petitioners, and therefore, that petition is respectfully denied. The court orders as follows: That the five body-cam videos be disclosed to Khalil Ferebee and his immediate family within one-degree of kinship, and one attorney licensed to practice law in the state of North Carolina. That is disclosure — that the video be held from release for a period of no less than 30 days and no more than 45 days, and that that will, to allow completion of any investigation being undertaken by the F.B.I. and by the district attorney’s office in this county. The disclosure of the video shall occur within 10 days, and Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Department is ordered to blur or redact all facial and identifying features of the officer shown prior to disclosure. That means facial features, name tags, any identifying information of those officers, officers prior to disclosure. The court, in its final order in this matter, will specify the time frames within which the video may be disclosed. In viewing the video, there were certain portions of the video that were conversations between officers, between superiors. I’m going to evaluate those videos, determine which portions are appropriate for release and are for disclosure, I’m sorry. And then we’ll provide that in my order so that the videos can be properly prepared to be disclosed to the family.

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A North Carolina judge declined a petition for the immediate release of police body-camera video in the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr., but approved disclosure of redacted videos to family and one lawyer.CreditCredit…Carlos Bernate for The New York Times

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — For a week now, protesters in Elizabeth City, a small, majority-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 on 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Brown, Mr. Womble said.

Mr. Womble’s description contradicted the earlier account by a lawyer for Mr. 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 Mr. Brown “finally decides to try to get away” in a way that did not endanger anyone, as officers continued to shoot at him.

Image Judge Foster also ruled that authorities must show the footage to Mr. Brown’s adult son, Khalil Ferebee, center, and his immediate family within one degree of kinship, plus one lawyer licensed to practice law in the state of North Carolina.
Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York Times

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 on Wednesday night, said Keith Rivers, president of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. “Oh, we ain’t stopping,” he said.

Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who is leading a large legal team representing Mr. 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 longstanding 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,” Mr. 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.

Judge 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.

ImageFaith leaders march from A.M.E. Zion Church to the scene where Andrew Brown Jr. was killed.
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

But Judge Foster also ruled that authorities must show the footage to Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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, though members of Mr. 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, Mr. Brown’s aunt, said she had a hard time believing Mr. Womble’s assertion that Mr. Brown’s car had made contact with deputies. “No,” she said. “Not buying it. Thank you.”

Image For a week now, protesters in Elizabeth City have taken to the streets, demanding to see the body-camera video footage of the fatal police shooting Andrew Brown Jr.
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Brown’s family that a decision on pursuing criminal charges is conducted without bias.”

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

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach, a nonprofit organization focused on uplifting marginalized communities in America, said Black residents of Pasquotank County have a troubled relationship with the Sheriff’s Office, and called for an independent review of the department’s practices, particularly on how it polices Black residents. Several counties in the eastern part of the state, which Dr. Barber called the “Black Belt,” have never seen a Black sheriff or a Black district attorney, he said.

“If these deputy sheriffs would arm up like they did after this young man, something had to give them the feeling that they would be OK,” he said. “For some reason they felt like they could act with impunity.”

Will Wright contributed reporting.

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