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North Carolina prosecutor says deputies were justified in shooting of Andrew Brown Jr.

Pasquotank County Dist. Atty. Andrew Womble answers questions from reporters
Pasquotank County Dist. Atty. Andrew Womble announces he will not charge deputies in the April 21 fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. at a news conference Tuesday in Elizabeth City, N.C.
(Travis Long / [Raleigh, N.C.] News & Observer )

A North Carolina prosecutor said Tuesday that sheriff’s deputies were justified in fatally shooting Andrew Brown Jr. because he struck a deputy with his car and nearly ran him over while ignoring commands to show his hands and get out of the vehicle.

Pasquotank County Dist. Atty. Andrew Womble said at a news conference that Brown used his car as a “deadly weapon,” causing deputies to believe it was necessary to use deadly force. Womble, who acknowledged Brown wasn’t armed with guns or other weapons, said the deputies will face no criminal charges after he reviewed a state investigation of what happened.

Brown’s family released a statement calling Womble’s decision “both an insult and a slap in the face.”

Attorneys for Brown’s family who watched body camera footage have previously said that he was trying to drive away from deputies and posed no threat. The shooting has prompted weeks of protests in Elizabeth City and calls for transparency.

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During his news conference, Womble said six Pasquotank County deputies attempting to serve drug-related search and arrest warrants arrived in a truck and approached Brown’s car on foot with weapons drawn while ordering him to get out.

A deputy who tried to open Brown’s car door was jerked over the hood when the car backed up, and the deputy’s body was struck by the vehicle, the prosecutor said. The deputy then found himself directly in the car’s path as Brown drove forward again, Womble said, and had to push off the hood with his hand “to avoid being run over.” Womble said that was when the first shot was fired by a fellow deputy.

“I find that the facts of this case clearly illustrate the officers who used deadly force on Andrew Brown Jr. did so reasonably and only when a violent felon used a deadly weapon to put their lives in danger,” Womble said, referring to Brown’s car. He added that “Brown posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers and others.”

“Federal courts have held that the Constitution simply does not require police to gamble with their lives in the face of a serious threat of harm,” he said.

Womble said at least two deputies were endangered by Brown’s driving, though the sheriff has said none of his deputies was injured.

In a statement released a couple of hours after the news conference, attorneys for Brown’s families decried Womble’s conclusion.

“To say this shooting was justified, despite the known facts, is both an insult and a slap in the face to Andrew’s family, the Elizabeth City community, and to rational people everywhere,” the statement said. “Not only was the car moving away from officers, but four of them did not fire their weapons — clearly they did not feel that their lives were endangered. And the bottom line is that Andrew was killed by a shot to the back of the head.”

Many of the two dozen people who gathered outside the municipal building where Womble held his news conference said they were disappointed by his decision. Some said they would hold a protest march in Elizabeth City on Tuesday evening.

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Keith Rivers, president of Pasquotank County’s NAACP chapter, said he was frustrated and angry.

“Andrew Brown Jr. is the victim,” Rivers said. “It’s not a district attorney’s job to defend sheriff’s deputies. It is his job to get justice for the victim. It is the court’s job to decide whether or not it was reasonable or unreasonable.”

The prosecutor also said he would not release body camera video of the confrontation between Brown and the deputies but he did play portions of the video during the news conference that news outlets broadcast live. The multiple angles of the footage, played once each on a projector, depicted a chaotic minutelong scene, but it was hard to discern a detailed sequence of events.

While authorities have shown footage to Brown’s family, a judge has so far refused to release the video publicly because he didn’t want to harm an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.

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The bureau issued a statement Tuesday noting that it investigates the facts but “does not make any determinations as to whether criminal charges should be filed.” The statement said its investigative report isn’t a public record and won’t be released.

Separately, the FBI is conducting a civil rights probe of the shooting.

The three deputies who fired shots — Investigator Daniel Meads, Deputy Robert Morgan and Cpl. Aaron Lewellyn — have been on leave since it happened. The sheriff’s office said Morgan is Black, while Meads and Lewellyn are white. Womble said the deputies have no prior use-of-force complaints.

Four other deputies involved in serving the warrants were reinstated after the sheriff said it was clear they didn’t fire shots.

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A lawyer who represented some of the deputies during a court hearing on petitions to release the video didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday.

Womble said a medical examiner working for the state found that Brown died from multiple gunshot wounds after being hit in the back of the head and right shoulder. Womble said the medical examiner, who spoke to him by phone, also described superficial “abrasions” to his arm, leg and back from bullet shrapnel. The state’s written autopsy hasn’t been released yet.

Two deputies fired nine shots from Glock handguns and the third fired five rounds from an AR-15 rifle, according to Womble, based on spent shell casings.

An independent autopsy released by the family found that Brown was hit by bullets five times, including once in the back of the head.

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