(Reuters) – Four North Carolina deputies suspended over the fatal shooting of a Black man while trying to serve him with a search warrant have returned to duty after investigators found they never fired their guns, but three others who did will remain on leave, their sheriff said on Thursday.
Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten released the names of all seven deputies placed on administrative leave after the April 21 shooting death of Andrew Brown Jr., 42, in Elizabeth City, a riverfront town near the Virginia border.
Brown’s family and their lawyers have accused the officers involved in the deadly confrontation of using unnecessary lethal force against someone who posed no threat and was attempting to flee, characterizing the shooting as an “execution.”
They cited conclusions of a private autopsy showing Brown was shot in the arm four times through the front windshield of his car before he spun the vehicle around and was killed by a fifth gunshot to the head as he tried to get away.
The shooting, which sparked a week of protests, came a day after a Minneapolis jury returned a murder conviction in the closely watched trial of the white former police officer who killed George Floyd, a Black man, by kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes.
At a court hearing on Wednesday in Elizabeth City, District Attorney Andrew Womble disputed the Brown family’s account of the shooting.
Womble said police video shows officers surrounding Brown’s car and the vehicle backing up twice after a deputy tried opening a car door while others shouted at Brown to halt. Womble said deputies opened fire when Brown’s car lurched forward and made “contact” with them.
Lawyers for Brown’s family, along with Wooten and news outlets, have urged state investigators to release video footage captured by deputies’ body-worn cameras and dashboard cameras.
But a judge on Wednesday denied petitions for immediate public disclosure of the video, while ordering investigators to allow Brown’s son, Khalil Ferebee, to view the footage within 10 days. Relatives were previously shown only a 20-second clip.
Wooten said Wednesday he was “disappointed” by the ruling. But on Thursday he issued a new statement saying investigators’ review of the video showed that “four of the deputies never fired their weapons and deserve to be reinstated to active duty.”
“More investigation is necessary into the three deputies who did fire their weapons and they will remain on administrative leave pending completion” of a criminal probe underway by the State Bureau of Investigation, Wooten said.
The three officers who remain suspended are deputy Robert Morgan, Corporal Aaron Levelly, and sheriff’s investigator Daniel Meads, who signed the affidavit accompanying the search warrant that led to Brown’s death.
According to that affidavit, posted online by the sheriff, Brown was known to local law enforcement as a drug dealer suspected of being a source of crack cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine in and around Elizabeth City.
Narcotics investigators had carried out two “controlled” purchases of drugs from Brown by a confidential informant in March and obtained a search warrant for his home and cars seeking additional evidence of drug-dealing operations, according to the affidavit.
(This story corrects date of Andrew Brown’s shooting to April 21)
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Karishma Singh)