ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — The Black man who died during an attempted arrest in North Carolina last week was shot five times, once in the back of the head, his family said Tuesday.
Less than hour after an independent autopsy concluded that the man, Andrew Brown Jr., 42, was killed by a bullet in the back of his head, the FBI announced that it was opening a federal civil rights investigation.
Brown’s relatives question why Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies used deadly force while serving a warrant for his arrest on felony drug charges Wednesday.
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The family commissioned a forensic pathologist, Dr. Brent Hall, who found that Brown was shot four times in the right arm and once squarely in the back of his head.
The shot to the head was fired from “intermediate” range and penetrated Brown’s skull and brain, according to Hall, who is based in Boone, North Carolina. The bullet wound had a trajectory of “bottom to top, left to right and back to front,” Hall’s report said.
An attorney for the family, Wayne Kendall, said at a news conference, “This, in fact, was a fatal wound to the back of Mr. Brown’s head as he was leaving the site trying to evade being shot at by these particular law enforcement officers that we believe did nothing but a straight-up execution.”
Hall’s report confirmed the findings of a state death certificate that showed that Brown was shot five times: once in his head, once in his right shoulder, twice in his upper right arm and once more around his right elbow. It said Brown’s immediate cause of death was “Penetrating gunshot wound of the head.”
Khalil Ferebee, Brown’s son, said the findings showed that his father posed no threat to deputies, making deadly force unnecessary.
“Those gunshots to the arm, that weren’t enough? That weren’t enough?” he said. “It’s obvious he was trying to get away. It’s obvious, and they’re going to shoot him in the back of the head? That s— not right. That’s not right at all, man.”
A fatal shot to the back of Brown’s head will raise difficult questions about the use of force, law enforcement experts said Tuesday.
“Of course, we don’t know the specifics of what happened, and we haven’t seen video,” said Keith Taylor, a 23-year veteran of the New York Police Department who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “But if you have someone fleeing away from law enforcement and if there is no weapon or threat of a weapon, then what is the justification for ending that person’s life?”
John Jay professor Gloria Browne-Marshall said that if Brown had his back to the deputy who fired the deadly shot, she would be hard pressed to justify the shooting.
“Under the law, deadly force can meet deadly force,” said Browne-Marshall, who teaches constitutional law, policing in the minority community and rules of evidence. “So an officer who fears for their life has to have a reasonable fear. Where is the fear from deadly force coming from the victim that the officer has to respond with deadly force?”
Another family attorney, Bakari Sellers, said he believed Brown’s wounds showed that he was not a threat.
“We know that Andrew was shot in the back of the head. We know that that is at best against protocol, policy and procedure and, at worst, it’s illegal,” Sellers said. “We know he was shot a total of five times, four times in the arm, which is consistent with his arms being up and on the steering wheel.”
He added: “We also know that at no time were [deputies] in any danger. There were no drugs found, and at no point did he try to use the car as a weapon.”
Brown’s family and attorneys said Monday that they were allowed to see just 20 seconds of body-camera video of the deadly encounter. They said the video showed that he was not a threat to arresting deputies. NBC News has not seen the video.
Police recordings, such as body-camera video, are not automatically classified as public records in North Carolina, as in some other states. A judge has to sign off on formal requests to have police video released.
City Manager Montré Freeman said Tuesday that he understands the family’s frustration at seeing so little video.
“I am completely flabbergasted at that move,” Freeman told MSNBC. “You know, when you have bodycam, the most transparent thing to do is to show all of it, and unfortunately, that did not happen yesterday, and I wish I had an answer for you.”
Even if police video is not a public document, Sellers said, the sheriff has authority to show Brown’s loved ones more video in private than is released to the public.
“The law does not require a judge’s order to show the family the entire video,” Sellers said Tuesday. “That was a discretionary decision made by the county to show them 20 seconds under the auspices of it being pertinent to them.”
The Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office filed a petition with the court late Monday requesting permission to release recordings to Brown’s adult son, Ferebee.
Chapel Hill civil rights lawyer Brad Bannon said delays in releasing body-camera video only give oxygen to the notion that authorities are trying to control the narrative.
“We have to remember that reasons given by law enforcement or by, you know, official actors for not releasing evidence or in characterizing that evidence and its impact” do not always “end up being true on the back end,” Bannon said. “We just saw that in George Floyd’s case, where this incident was described as a health event.”
Brown’s family was particularly angered Monday because they were shown so little video on the same day a search warrant affidavit was released accusing Brown of selling cocaine, crack, meth and heroin.
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The shooting occurred in a residential neighborhood in Elizabeth City, which is about 35 miles south of Norfolk, Virginia.
Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten pleaded for patience Monday, saying independent investigators need to examine all the evidence. He defended the relatively little video that was shown to the family.
“This tragic incident was quick and over in less than 30 seconds, and body cameras are shaky and sometimes hard to decipher,” Wooten said. “They only tell part of the story. Outside investigators both from SBI [the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation] and four other sheriff’s offices are interviewing witnesses and gathering more information.”
As the family and their attorneys spoke to reporters outside the Pasquotank County Public Safety Building in Elizabeth City, supporters and protesters like Dedan Waciuri, 34, demanded change in the criminal justice system.
“A lot of people say we’re outside agitators, but our general message is these attacks keep occurring,” said Waciuri, who drove nearly two hours from Greenville, North Carolina, to voice his concerns. “As Black people, we are all affected by the same system.”
Katie Gregory, 40, a white woman from nearby Camden, said she wanted to show support for Brown’s family because her relatives do not face the same threats.
“I wanted my community and families to know that they have allies in this town,” Gregory said. “I’m devastated about what happened. I couldn’t imagine that happening to my child. My kids have blond hair and blue eyes, so I don’t have to worry about that with them. If my son was shot the way that he was shot, I would want my community to rally around.”
Deon J. Hampton reported from Elizabeth City and David K. Li from New York.