By Nathan Layne and Barbara Goldberg
(Reuters) -A North Carolina prosecutor will not bring criminal charges against sheriff's deputies for the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown, a Black man, outside his home last month, saying on Tuesday that the killing was justified because Brown endangered their lives by driving toward them.
Pasquotank County District Attorney Andrew Womble said he had concluded his investigation and found no wrongdoing by the deputies, despite calls for prosecution by lawyers for Brown's family, who described his death as an execution.
Brown, 42, was shot as he resisted arrest and tried to speed off in his car during a morning raid at his home on April 21 in Elizabeth City, a riverfront community where just over half of the roughly 18,000 residents are Black.
"Mr. Brown's death was justified," Womble told reporters at a news briefing in which he also showed video taken from the body-worn cameras of the Pasquotank County sheriff's deputies as they tried to arrest him on suspicion of selling illegal drugs.
Benjamin Crump and other lawyers representing Brown's family, in a joint statement, decried what they called "Womble's attempt to whitewash this unjustified killing," and demanded that a North Carolina court allow the release of all videos.
The killing captured national attention, coming a day after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd in a highly publicized trial. It further fueled the raging debate over when police are justified in using deadly force in an arrest and when authorities should release body-worn camera video to the public.
Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent on when deadly force is justified, Womble said the video showed the deputies behaving as any "reasonable police officer" would "when a violent felon used a deadly weapon to place their lives in danger," describing how Brown drove his car toward them in a dangerous way. The officers would not face criminal charges, he said.
"The Constitution simply does not require police to gamble with their lives in the face of a serious threat," Womble said. "They could not simply have let him go as has been suggested."
VIDEOS OF SHOOTING
Womble said deputies arrived that morning to find Brown sitting in his car, talking on the phone. They surrounded the car, ordering him to show his hands and attempting to open the car door.
He played excerpts of video from the deputies' body-worn cameras, which he said showed that Brown rapidly backed up, pulling a deputy over the car hood.
Brown continued to retreat until his path was blocked by his home, and then drove forward toward the officers. The officers repeatedly shouted at him to stop, but he ignored their commands and drove toward the same deputy who had been pulled over the hood.
Three of the deputies began firing at the car: one shot went through the windshield, and another five entered the car's trunk and rear window, Womble said.
Brown suffered two gunshot wounds: a non-lethal shot to the shoulder and a fatal shot to the back of his head.
"Mr. Brown's actions caused three deputies with the Pasquotank County Sheriff's office to reasonably believe it was necessary to use deadly force to protect themselves and others," Womble told reporters.
Womble said Brown was known to officers as having a long history of arrests and convictions dating back to 1995, including assault with a deadly weapon. Before heading to Brown's home, officers were told that Brown had a history of resisting arrest or barricading himself against police, Womble said.
A chunk of crystal meth — an illegal stimulant — about as big as "a 50-cent piece," was found in Brown's car, Womble said. No weapons were found on Brown or in the car.
Lawyers for Brown's family had previously said a 20-second portion of the video they were allowed to see showed he was "executed" by the officers, describing how they continued shooting at him as he drove away from them. In their statement on Tuesday, the lawyers said the videos showed that the officers were not in fear of their lives.
"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," they said.
Kristie Puckett-Williams of the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union said the decision not to charge any of the officers was “business as usual” in a criminal justice system skewed against non-white people.
“Until we have radically changed the many ways the criminal legal system harms and kills Black and Brown people, justice will continue to elude its victims,” Puckett-Williams said in a statement.
The sheriff's office did not respond to a request for comment. The three deputies who opened fire were put on administrative leave, and it was not immediately clear if or when they would return to regular duties.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said in April it had begun investigating whether the deputies violated Brown's civil rights.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Conn., Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, N.J., and Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Sarah Lynch in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler, Matthew Lewis and Steve Orlofsky)