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NC District Attorney: Andrew Brown Jr's Death Was "Justified"; Israeli Warplanes Pound Gaza as Hamas Rocket Fire Resumes; Speaker Pelosi Calls for Israel-Palestinian Ceasefire, Putting Press on Biden; White House Pursuing "Quiet" Diplomacy on Israel-Gaza Fighting; Cities, States, Businesses Scramble after CDC's Mask Reversal. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired May 18, 2021 - 14:30   ET




VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: A North Carolina district attorney has ruled the deadly shooting of Andrew Brown Jr as justified.

Now, sheriff's deputies shot and killed Brown while they were trying to execute arrest and search warrants.

District Attorney Andrew Womble showed some of the body camera footage of Brown backing up his car.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Womble said that as Brown backed up, a deputy, was pulled by the car. And we can see the deputy's arm right there in a screen shot that the D.A. showed of that moment.

Brown then drove forward. And that is when officers opened fire.

We do now have some of the body camera footage to show you, but we want to warn, it is graphic.






BLACKWELL: All right, CNN's Brian Todd, is in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

Brian, so, the D.A. says 44 seconds, start to finish, the interaction between deputies and Brown.

And about the car, he said that, you know, whether it's moving forward, backward or not at all, it's considered a deadly weapon.

Talk more about how he came to the conclusion that this was justified.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Victor and Alisyn, he was very detailed in his explanation of why he believes it was a justified killing.

He went over almost a second-by-second tick-tock of how this incident unfolded on the morning of April 21st, saying the deputies arrived there shortly before 8:30 a.m..

That they yelled commands, that they surrounded his car, that he had his hands on the wheel and possibly on a cell phone also when they arrived, that he simply ignored the commands that they shouted.

And then put his car in reverse and then put his car in drive. And both times, according to Andrew Womble, he made contact with the sheriff's deputies.

Here's what Mr. Womble had to say a short time ago.


ANDREW WOMBLE, PASQUOTANK COUNTY, N.C., DISTRICT ATTORNEY, When you employ a car in a manner that puts officers' lives in danger, that is a threat.

And I don't care what direction you're going, forward, backward, sideways. I don't care if you're stationary. And neither do our courts and our case law.



TODD: So, Andrew Womble saying that Andrew Brown posed very much of a threat to those deputies that morning.

But that is absolutely the opposite of what the Brown family and its attorneys are saying this afternoon.

Here's a statement from the Brown family's attorneys that we just got a short time ago:

"Andrew Brown Jr., his grieving family and his community deserve answers and they received everything but from D.A. Womble's attempt to whitewash this unjustified killing.

"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."

And separately, one of the family attorneys, Bakari Sellers, told me that from the video that we and they saw when it was televised today at that news conference, he said it was not at all clear that Andrew Brown used his vehicle as a weapon. The family and its attorneys still saying that Brown used that vehicle

to try to get away. And they still believe, very steadfastly, that he did not make contact with those officers.

That if anybody made contact, it was the officers who first made contact with Brown's vehicle.

And the attorneys have said, often, that they believe that the deputies fired before the vehicle moved.

But of course, Andrew Womble saying the opposite, that the shots were not fired until the vehicle moved and until it moved in a threatening manner to those deputies -- Alisyn, Victor?

CAMEROTA: Brian, thank you very much. Stay with us, if you would. We have more questions.

BLACKWELL: Let's bring in civil rights attorney, Trent Copeland.

Trent, thanks for being with us.

First, the big question here: Did you learn enough today to determine whether or not this shooting was or was not justified?

TRENT COPELAND, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I didn't, Victor. And here's why. There were a number of reasons.

Look, I was struck by this press conference by a number of things. The most recent of which and the most important of which was the officers' use of the words "accountability" and "transparency."

So, the D.A. used those words in his press conference. And I don't think there was much supply of either of those.

Look, if transparency was some measure of understanding of how this happened, give this family some measure of an understanding of how their loved one died, then transparency should have occurred when the release of the video.

Release of the entire body cam video, not these carefully edited bits of the body cam video that were released but all of the body cam video.

And so, look, so the fact that that didn't happen clearly raises more questions in my mind than it answers.

And I think the next thing, Victor, is, you know, the D.A. went to great lengths to describe just what these officers had to do in terms of making split-second decisions in rapidly changing environments.

But what he didn't describe was how these officers also could have made a rapidly changing decision in a split-second environment where they didn't shoot an unarmed man whose car was moving away from them. That didn't happen.

And so, look, he went to great lengths, as you said, early in the segment, to describe the case law, the statutory authority that justified this shooting.

But just because you can do something legally under the law, doesn't necessarily mean you should do that under the law.

So I left this press conference feeling more like this was a press conference by the defense lawyer for the officers involved as opposed to the D.A. for the entire community.

CAMEROTA: Trent, he also -- the D.A. also went to great lengths to spell out Andrew Brown's violent past, as he described it, the violent crimes that, in the past, he was charged with.

Do you think that that changes this case? I mean, changes -- obviously, something like that, knowing something like that ups the tension for the police, as they approach.

Do you think that it changes the case?

COPELAND: I don't think it changes the case at all, Alisyn.

What I do think it changes is how we view these officers' initial contact with Mr. Brown.

So the reality is, these officers aware of Mr. Brown's past? Aware of his apparent drug use? Aware of the fact that he was a felon who was in possession of potentially a weapon?

Although, we don't know that's the case? There's never been any evidence of that.

That would have been the only thing that would have justified these officers arriving on this scene, armed to the teeth, to take a man out.

The only basis for that, the only justification for that would have been these officers feeling very much like they were under attack and under threat.

And so in the absence of that, I'm not sure there was anything these officers could have done in advance that would have justified their actions and their interaction with Mr. Brown.

BLACKWELL: And, Brian, we saw just once through, about a minute of video from several different angles. What about the rest of the video?

We know that the Brown family was allowed to see up to 20 minutes, I believe, it was, of video.

What now about the rest of the video potentially being released to the public?


TODD: Well, we are petitioning for that, Victor, and we're trying to get that released. It's very unclear at the moment whether the judge, Jeffery Foster, is going to agree to that release. We've been trying to get this for several weeks now.

There was an indication from him on April 28th that there was a possibility of it being released to the public in full within about a month to 45 days from that date, from April 28th.

But again, right now, it is not clear when this is going to be released, if it will be released. And if it is released, you know, to what extent we'll be able to see some of this video.

Of course, we want to see all of it. The Brown family and its attorneys want the public to see all of it. They want to see all of it.

They say they have not been able to see all of it. They've seen about 18 minutes and 40 seconds of the video.

Another detail I want to point out here, I asked the district attorney this afternoon: Can you identify the officer who fired the fatal head shot and any other circumstances regarding that fatal head shot, what angle, how far away was it?

He could not identify the officer who fired that fatal head shot. He didn't have any information on the angle or the distance because he said the bullet basically tumbled and then fragmented inside Andrew Brown's head after it hit his head.

So, that's a key piece of information that we don't have at the moment.

He -- and according to Bakari Sellers, one of the attorneys for the Brown family, they don't believe he adequately explained the shot to the back of the head that killed Andrew Brown.

And as we found out, he does not know the name or the -- really the circumstances regarding the officer who fired that shot.

CAMEROTA: We want to quickly bring in former Chicago police officer and law enforcement analyst, Dimitri Roberts.

Mr. Roberts, from your experience in law enforcement and from what you have now seen of the body cam video and what you heard the D.A. say, do you think that the police did something wrong here?

DIMITRI ROBERTS, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, it's clear that even in their own use-of-force policy that this is a clear violation of that.

I mean, departments across the country adopted use-of-force policies to eliminate these very circumstances from happening.

And that is, if the vehicle or if a vehicle is the only threat to the officer, then the officer should attempt, in every possible way, to move out of the way of that threat.

So, what we know is that he didn't have a weapon. And that right now, the only threat that was posed to the officers was the vehicle. And from what we hear now, he was shot from behind, so where is the real threat to the officers?

And in Chicago, we have had to deal with these things all the time. And they've put policies in place specifically for incidents like this not to happen.

But I think it's a telling -- I think it's a real telling tale that the district attorney, the judge, and the county are not willing to release the tape for all of us to see.

BLACKWELL: I expect that we'll hear more, of course, from the Andrew Brown Jr family and their attorneys.

Dimitri Roberts, Trent Copeland, Brian Todd, thank you all.

CAMEROTA: So, the Biden administration is under growing pressure from Democrats to get more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The latest calls for stronger action from the White House, next.



CAMEROTA: Despite growing calls for an immediate ceasefire, there's no pause right now in the fighting between Israel and the militant group, Hamas.

Israeli war planes today bombed the homes of Hamas commanders in Gaza as well as rocket-launch sites and underground tunnels that Hamas uses for weapons and fighters.

BLACKWELL: There was a brief lull overnight but Hamas has resumed firing rockets and mortars into Israel.

The toll on both sides is growing. Hundreds have been killed in Gaza, at least 12 dead in Israel.

CNN's Nic Robertson is in Ashdod in Israel.

Nic, give us the latest on the situation there now.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, literally, in the last couple of minutes, we have been overhearing fighter jets flying on their route into Gaza across here. That was lasting for about a minute, minute and a half.

Forty minutes ago, there was a siren that went off as rockets were coming here. They were intercepted.

It is just continuing into this night as we have seen on previous nights.

I think the difference -- the sense of difference that we get today, we've heard from the Israeli prime minister saying, look, we believe we've pushed Hamas's capabilities and abilities back, that they have learned a message from us, they have -- they understand this message from us.

However, we're also learning from the Israeli Defense Forces that they still have a lot of targets that they want to go after in Gaza to stop Hamas being able to launch the type of attacks that it's been launching.

If you go back to the beginning of the hostilities a week ago, it's estimated by the Israeli Defense Forces there were some 13,000 to 14,000 rockets in Gaza, held by militant groups. They're only fired three and a half thousand.

Only about 60 miles of what is hundreds of miles of tunnels that have been taken out. There are other areas of tunnels the military wants to go after.

They're having problems targeting the launching system for these rockets. They're finding those difficult to locate and destroy.

So, while they're taking out commanders, there are still a lot of other targets that the military want to take out, that the government wants to take out because that's the message they need to send to Hamas, not to launch attacks again.


And beyond that, they need to withdrawal and take away from Hamas the ability to launch those attacks.

So at the moment, the background of diplomacy is not coming through.

The ground reality that there are military targets this government really wants to remove.

BLACKWELL: Nic Robertson for us there in Ashdod.

Nic, thank you.

Just a short time ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added her voice to the growing number of congressional Democrats urging for a ceasefire. This ramps up the pressure on President Biden to do more.

Brett Bruen is a former diplomat and served as director of global engagement at the White House in the Obama administration. He's now president of The Global Situation Room.

Brett, thanks for being with us.

This call for a ceasefire, we're seeing the list of names on Capitol Hill grow.

But what we're hearing from the president is that he supports one. We're hearing from the secretary of state that the U.S. is ready if each side chooses to enter one.

Why aren't we hearing from the president a call for a ceasefire? BRETT BRUEN, PRESIDENT, THE GLOBAL SITUATION ROOM & FORMER DIRECTOR OF

GLOBAL ENGAGEMENT UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I can tell you American diplomacy is not a spectator sport, especially with a crisis like this.

And the words that you're hearing from the president and his secretary of state are not calling for the kind of direct action, the kind of deadlines, and what the United States is doing to address this.

What you're hearing instead is more condolences from a Hallmark card. We're sorry for your loss and we wish there was peace.

I think Biden needs to step it up. And he needs to get the secretary of state on the ground to hammer out a deal.

CAMEROTA: Why aren't they doing that, Brett?

BRUEN: Well, I think Biden tried at the beginning of his administration to pivot away from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. It's been a quagmire for presidents past.

And I think he was hoping that he -- as, you know, President Obama attempted to do, could work on issues with Asia and other parts of the world where they hope they could achieve more progress.

But, you know, the Middle East, and Israel in particular, left to its own devices is going to bubble up. That's what we're seeing happen now tragically on the ground.

BLACKWELL: We're also hearing from some Democrats on the Hill, a call to delay the delivery of $735 million weapons purchased by Israel.

Do you think that would be effective, to hold that back?

BRUEN: I think the Biden administration needs to use the leverage with Israelis and Palestinians.

Let's not forget the Iranians, because Iran is playing a role in supporting Hamas. And they're also seeking the U.S. return to the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear agreement.

So we need to play three-dimensional chess here. And right now, I'm not seeing it from the White House. They are trying to just keep their distance from this crisis.

BLACKWELL: Is that a yes on holding back the weapon deliveries?

BRUEN: I think it would be a smart move to threaten it and then to use that as leverage.


CAMEROTA: Let's listen to Jen Psaki -- actually, we have something more up to date. Here is Secretary of State Tony Blinken this morning on what he says is happening.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: We are engaged in quiet but very intensive diplomacy in an effort to de-escalate and end the violence. And then hopefully move on to build something more positive in its wake.


CAMEROTA: Brett, to your point, why does it have to be quiet diplomacy? Why not something more vociferous?

BRUEN: Well, a quiet diplomacy is normally not a recipe for success in situations like this. You have to tell everyone that this is what we expect. And you have to make clear some of those benchmarks for achieving it.

Yes, of course, I mean, there will be elements you're doing behind closed doors. But what we're not seeing is the active engagement.

And I think the best illustration of this is the fact that you have the deputy assistant secretary of state on the ground. That's like putting a third-string quarterback into the Super Bowl.

We need to have senior leadership. Secretary Blinken needs to reroute his trip to Greenland and get on the ground and solve this crisis.

CAMEROTA: Brett Bruen, thank you very much for all of the insights.

BLACKWELL: Thank you, Brett.

BRUEN: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: So, a lot of people are looking toward life without masks. Everybody, raise your hand.


But first, we have to figure out the rules, the changes depending upon which grocery store you go to, which mall you go to. We'll break down the new guidelines across the country, next.


BLACKWELL: Some good news to start in America's pandemic recovery. The CDC says now 60 percent of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Fifteen states reported zero COVID-related deaths yesterday. That's not happened since last year.

CAMEROTA: So, as the trends improve, states are scrambling to adjust their strategies.

BLACKWELL: Let's bring in now CNN's Tom Foreman with a look at America's patchwork of reopenings.

Tom, walk us through it.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT; It is absolutely getting better, as you noted, but it is also not uniform.

Look at the tale of two coasts here. California out here says they're still going to wait about a month to drop their mask mandate even though many, many things are opening up.

Pennsylvania, on the other coast, says they're going to wait until they get 70 percent vaccinations before they open up.

But right next door, look at this, New York and Connecticut. New York has the second-highest number of fatalities in the whole country just behind California.

They're ready to basically go green with this. So is Connecticut.

Delaware and Maryland will follow later this week. However, in Maryland, the city of Baltimore will continue a mask mandate.

And in the middle of all that, New Jersey, they're holding onto their mask mandate indefinitely.

Spread that across the country, you can see there's a lot of confusion about exactly where we are in all this good news and reopening.

So much so that if you talk to Quinton Lucas, the mayor of Kansas City, he says I'm not sure that's the message you want out there when you're still trying to get more people vaccinated.



MAYOR QUINTON LUCAS (D-KANSAS CITY): You want to encourage those people sitting on the fence by them still going to places, needing a mask and saying, this is how we lift up everyone, if you have thresholds.

If he this said jurisdictions of 70 percent vaccination rates. Those are the sorts of things that might have made a difference for us.

But we are in more of a Wild West focus. I say this respectfully to the CDC.

But we need to get back to a point where it's encouraging those to get vaccinated and more of that focus rather than celebrating our new- found freedoms.

Because the honor system just ain't working here. I don't think it's going to work in a lot of parts of the country.


FOREMAN: He says Wild West there. You want to see how Wild West it is? Look at some of these big-name companies no longer requiring masks: Starbucks, Walmart, Sam's Club, CVS, Best Buy.


And yet, they're saying, unless there are state or local laws that require those masks and some other big-name companies, they're still sticking with the masks right now.

So, the truth is, it is absolutely getting better fast.