Family sues Georgia sheriff over death in drug raid

Race in America

This undated self-portrait shows Latoya James, who was killed by gunfire in May 2021 when sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant for drugs at her cousin’s home in Camden County, Ga. Attorneys for James’ family are asking the Justice Department to investigate, saying the shooting echoes the 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. (Courtesy of Betty James via AP)

WOODBINE, Ga. (AP) — The family of a woman killed by gunfire last year as Georgia sheriff’s deputies executed a drug warrant at her cousin’s home announced a federal lawsuit Monday against the sheriff and others, claiming the deadly raid violated the slain woman’s civil rights.

Attorneys for the family of 37-year-old Latoya James have argued her death echoes the fatal shooting in 2020 of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Both cases involved Black women killed in shootouts after law officers forced their way into darkened homes with little to no warning.

The civil lawsuit filed Sunday in the Georgia case comes after the district attorney for coastal Camden County decided in April not to bring criminal charges against deputies in James’ death after concluding they were justified in using deadly force.

“I can never get her back,” the slain woman’s mother, Betty James, said through tears at a news conference Monday. “I got to hear her tell me ‘I love you, mommy’ for the last time the night before they took her life. And I can never hear that again. My family wants justice. We deserve justice.”

The lawsuit names Camden County Sheriff Jim Proctor as a defendant, as well as several deputies who took part in the fatal raid May 4, 2021. Filed on behalf of James’ 9-year-old daughter, the lawsuit seeks at least $25 million in damages. It argues deputies violated James’ rights by forcing entry without giving the home’s occupants time to answer their knock.

James was spending the night at the home of her cousin, Varshan Brown, when deputies with a warrant to search for drugs knocked down the door of the dark house at about 5 a.m. in Woodbine, located in Georgia’s coastal southeastern corner near the Florida line.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation released body camera video that showed deputies announcing themselves, then immediately forcing their way inside. Multiple gunshots were fired within seconds.

The deputy wearing the body camera was carrying a shield that obstructed much of the video. It doesn’t show who opened fire, and neither James nor Brown can be seen in the three-minute clip.

The lawsuit says James was killed by bullets striking her in the shoulder and back as deputies and Brown fired guns at each other. Brown was wounded and later charged with crimes related to the event. Attorneys for the family said he opened fire not knowing that it was law enforcement officers entering his home.

“It was under the dark of night, it was unexpected,” said Reginald Greene, an attorney for James’ family. “It was unlawful, it was unjustified.”

Capt. Larry Bruce, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, did not immediately return phone and email messages Monday. Messages were also left with John Myers, the attorney for Camden County.

District Attorney Keith Higgins’ office and the GBI have declined to say whether it was the deputies or Brown who fired the shots that killed James. Attorneys for James’ relatives said prosecutors have told the family that she was shot by deputies.

Regardless, Higgins’ office persuaded a grand jury to indict Brown on a charge of felony murder, arguing that he was responsible for the death of his cousin, James, by firing a gun at deputies.

Under Georgia law, someone can be convicted of felony murder if they commit a felony that results in a death, regardless of intent. Brown is also charged with felony counts of aggravated assault against peace officers, possessing cocaine with intent to distribute and illegal possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Brown has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He remains jailed in Camden County. Attorneys for James’ family have called on prosecutors to drop the murder charge against him.

James’ family last week asked the Justice Department to investigate her death, saying there are striking parallels between the Georgia case and the 2020 raid by police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, that left Taylor dead. The Justice Department filed federal civil rights charges against four Louisville officers earlier this month in connection to Taylor’s death.

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