SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Varshan Brown was charged with murder and taken to trial after sheriff's deputies fatally shot his cousin in a violent drug raid at Brown's southeast Georgia home.
After hearing four days of evidence and arguments in a Camden County courtroom, a jury convicted Brown, 49, of possessing cocaine and assaulting officers by shooting at them. But jurors concluded the death of his cousin, Latoya James, wasn't Brown's fault. They acquitted him of a felony murder charge.
Attorneys for James' family said the verdict Thursday validates their argument that deputies ultimately were responsible for the 37-year-old Black woman's death — not only because they shot her, but also for bursting into Brown's home with little warning in the middle of the night.
They have compared the deputies’ actions to the botched Kentucky narcotics raid that left Breonna Taylor dead and have a federal civil lawsuit pending that seeks $25 million from the Camden County Sheriff's Office.
“If somebody comes to my house at 4 or 5 in the morning and I don’t know who it is, I’m going to shoot too,” Harry Daniels, a civil rights attorney representing James' family, said Friday. “If he knew it was police, he wouldn’t have fired a gun at law enforcement.”
Being acquitted in his cousin's death didn't spare Brown from a harsh punishment, though. His conviction for possessing cocaine with intent to distribute enabled the trial judge to sentence him to life in prison.
James was killed May 4, 2021, after deputies with a search warrant for drugs came to Brown's darkened home at about 5 a.m. Body camera video released prior to the trial showed deputies announcing themselves and then immediately forcing their way inside. Multiple gunshots were fired within seconds.
Deputy Downy Casey testified during the trial that he entered a bedroom to see Brown standing beside a bed with James next to him. He said Brown ignored commands to get on the ground, raised a handgun and began shooting. Casey and Deputy Michael Blaquiere retuned fire.
Brown was wounded but survived. James got struck by a fragment from a deputy's bullet and died at the scene.
Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins said Friday he accepts the jury's verdict. He stood by the decision to put Brown on trial for felony murder, which Georgia law defines as a death caused by someone committing a felony — such as shooting at police — even if they had no intent to kill the victim.
“Brown did not shoot her,” Higgins said in a phone interview. “But for Varshan Brown knowingly shooting at the police, the police never would have fired and Latoya James would still be alive. So it was his act of choosing to fire a handgun at police officers that caused her death.”
Brown's defense attorney, Tobe Karrh, did not immediately return phone and email messages Friday.
During his closing argument at the trial, Karrh said the deputies startled Brown when they rammed his door down immediately after announcing themselves, WTLV-TV reported. He said Brown couldn’t tell they were law officers because he was blinded by lights on their weapons.
Higgins said the evidence showed the deputies gave the required notice at the door and that Casey, who was in the front, carried a ballistic shield marked with the word “sheriff.”
Neither Brown nor James can be seen in the body camera video, which is largely obscured by Casey's shield. He was the only deputy equipped with a body camera during the raid, Higgins said.
Judge Roger B. Lane sentenced Brown to life in prison. Higgins said the penalty was allowed because Brown had a prior conviction for cocaine possession with intent to distribute. The judge ordered Brown to serve 55 years, for the assault and gun charges, before he's eligible for parole.
The lawyers for James' family have likened her killing to that of Breonna Taylor, who was unarmed and killed in a 2020 raid by police officers in Louisville, Kentucky. The U.S. Justice Department brought civil rights charges against four officers involved in the Kentucky raid and later concluded that Louisville police engaged in a pattern of violating constitutional rights and discrimination.