A coalition of more than 20 media companies, including The Daily Advance, will be back in court next week seeking release of law enforcement video footage of Andrew Brown Jr.’s shooting death by three Pasquotank sheriff’s deputies in April.
A hearing on the companies’ amended petition to release the footage will be held during a civil session of Superior Court in Currituck County on Monday. Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett is scheduled to preside.
A different judge, Superior Court Judge Jeff Foster, denied the coalition’s initial petition for the videos’ release a week after Brown’s death, ruling the release “wasn’t appropriate at this time” because it could jeopardize the State Bureau of Investigation’s probe then underway of Brown’s fatal shooting by the three deputies. Foster also said releasing the deputies’ body and dash camera footage could hamper any potential defendants’ right to a fair trial.
Much has changed since Foster’s ruling. District Attorney Andrew Womble announced in May, following the conclusion of the SBI’s probe, that the three deputies wouldn’t face criminal charges in Brown’s fatal shooting. He said Brown’s shooting was justified because Brown put the officers’ lives at risk by driving his car at them.
Womble also showed portions of the deputies’ video footage of Brown’s shooting at the press conference where he announced the deputies would not face charges. On Foster’s orders, family members of Brown and one of their attorneys were also shown in May roughly 16 minutes of the nearly two hours of the deputies’ video footage.
Those who’ve seen the footage Womble released differ on what it shows. The district attorney has said it shows deputies firing, justifiably, at Brown’s car as he attempted to drive toward them during their attempt to serve several drug-related search and arrest warrants. Attorneys for Brown’s family have disagreed, saying the videos show the deputies “executing” Brown, firing their weapons at his car as he attempted to drive away from them.
Mike Tadych, an attorney with Stevens, Martin, Vaughan & Tadych, represented the media coalition during the first hearing. He argued in court there was a “compelling public interest” to release the video, noting “the national conversation that we find ourselves in about citizens’ interaction with the police.”
Tadych told Foster the media consortium’s petition for releasing the video of Brown’s shooting wasn’t intended to “indict or vindicate” the deputies involved but instead was an effort to “try to understand what happened.”
Tadych said recently the consortium’s arguments for releasing the deputies’ video of Brown’s shooting death “is the same but the facts have changed.”
“That is, the investigation is over; the DA has announced there will be no charges; and the DA has shown portions of the recordings publicly,” he said.
Tadych noted that a number of factors Foster cited in his order denying the original petition also appear to no longer apply. Foster had said the media companies’ petition shouldn’t be granted because release would “create a serious threat to the fair, and orderly administration of justice” and jeopardize the “confidentiality ... necessary to protect an active internal or criminal investigation or potential internal or criminal investigation.”
Because the investigation is over and no defendants are facing a criminal trial, Tadych said “it appears the facts and balancing of ... statutory factors have shifted and need to be reconsidered.”
Tadych also pointed out that Foster’s inclusion of the phrase “not appropriate at this time” in his May ruling denying release of the videos suggested an acknowledgment “that things may change and the application of the statutory factors and others upon which release is to be considered may change.”
Tadych also noted Foster’s order didn’t include any mention of media companies “not having standing” to seek the video’s release, something he had said at the May hearing. The state’s law regulating release of law enforcement video states petitioners can be “any persons requesting release of a recording.”
Asked if the developments since May could result in a decision favorable to his clients, and result in release of the full video, Tadych wasn’t sure.
Although Tillett is the presiding judge at Monday’s civil court session in Currituck, it’s not clear he’ll hear the media companies’ amended petition for the videos’ release. Tadych noted a North Carolina Appeals Court ruling that held one Superior Court judge “may not modify, overrule or change the judgment of another Superior Court judge previously made in the same action.”
“The calendar says it will be Judge Tillett” who will preside, Tadych said. “I’m not sure how that can be as Judge Foster heard (the case) before and one Superior Court Judge cannot overrule another. Perhaps they’ll bring in Judge Foster.”
It was not clear Friday if anyone plans to oppose the consortium’s amended petition for the videos’ release during Monday’s hearing. At the initial hearing in April, District Attorney Womble and H.P. Williams Jr., an attorney for the deputies, argued against release of the videos. Both said release could hinder justice and prevent someone — in Williams’ case, his clients — from getting a fair trial.
But with the SBI probe over and his decision not to file criminal charges against the deputies, Womble has said his office no longer has a position on the videos’ release. Williams could not be reached Friday for comment on whether his position has changed.
Tadych said he doesn’t know if those who initially opposed the videos’ release are still opposed.
“One of the problems with the statute is that it doesn’t require anyone reveal their position or the grounds for their position prior to the hearing,” he said.
Even though Pasquotank Sheriff Tommy Wooten is not a party to Monday’s hearing, the sheriff still supports full release of the deputies’ videos, Pasquotank County Attorney Mike Cox said Thursday. Pasquotank County also filed a petition requesting the full video be released.
“From day two since this happened, the Sheriff’s Office has supported release of this information to the public,” Cox said.
Attorneys for Brown’s family withdrew their petition for the videos’ release in June, saying they disagreed with conditions they claimed the court wanted to impose on what they could say about what the videos show. One attorney said their legal strategy was to obtain the videos from the Sheriff’s Office after filing a federal lawsuit. The Brown family attorneys filed a $30 million wrongful death lawsuit in July, naming Wooten, the three deputies, the Dare County sheriff, and others they said were involved in Brown’s fatal shooting.