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Joshua Brown, Witness in Amber Guyger Trial, Was Killed in a Drug Deal, Police Say

DALLAS — He testified against a former Dallas police officer on trial for murder, and 10 days later, he was dead.

The slaying of Joshua Brown, a neighbor who had heard gunshots across the hall on the night when 26-year-old Botham Shem Jean was killed in his apartment by an off-duty police officer, rattled many who had followed the recent high-profile trial. There was speculation that he had been killed in retaliation, or that perhaps the trial had brought him dangerous publicity.

But on Tuesday, the Dallas Police Department offered a far different explanation: Mr. Brown, 28, was killed during a drug deal, it said, and detectives were pursuing capital murder charges against three suspects. Two of the suspects were in custody, and another was at large, the police said.

“There has been speculation and rumors that have been shared by community leaders claiming that Mr. Brown’s death was related to the Amber Guyger trial and that somehow the Dallas Police Department was responsible,” Avery Moore, an assistant chief who oversees criminal investigations, said at a news conference. “I assure you that is simply not true.”

Mr. Brown, who like Mr. Jean was black, found himself in the public eye after he became a witness in the case against Amber R. Guyger, a white police officer who was heading home from work last year on the night of the original shooting. Ms. Guyger, who lived downstairs at the South Side Flats apartment complex in Dallas, claimed she mistook the apartment for her own and Mr. Jean for an intruder. Mr. Brown testified for the prosecution at her murder trial in September, and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison last week.

Late on Friday night, two days after the trial ended, Mr. Brown was shot. He was found injured outside a different apartment he had moved to in another part of the city, and died later at a hospital. Witnesses saw a silver sedan speeding away from the scene.

The timing of Mr. Brown’s death immediately drew attention and led to public speculation. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called for an independent state or federal investigation into Mr. Brown’s killing, calling it a “deeply alarming and highly suspicious murder.” A Houston businessman and high-stakes poker player, Bill Perkins, offered a $100,000 reward in the case. Lee Merritt, a lawyer who represented Mr. Jean’s family and began working with Mr. Brown’s relatives, said that “the possibility of law enforcement involvement” could not be ruled out.

At the news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Moore, the assistant police chief, sought to allay concerns about the case and restore the public’s confidence. “I thank you for trusting us to provide you with true and accurate information,” he said.

The police said they had identified three men who they believed had traveled from Louisiana to buy drugs from Mr. Brown.

One of the men, Jacquerious Mitchell, who was in critical condition at a hospital, told the police that Mr. Brown shot him in the chest, and that he heard two more gunshots afterward. An autopsy found that Mr. Brown was shot twice in the lower body, the authorities said.

Mr. Mitchell, 20, was in custody at the hospital and faced a charge of capital murder, the police said. Another man, Michael Diaz Mitchell, 32, was arrested by United States Marshalls in Marksville, La.

The authorities were searching for the third suspect, Thaddeous Charles Green, 22.

The developments were only the latest whiplash moment in a case that from the start did not fit neatly into the narrative of other police shootings of unarmed black men, but nevertheless stirred racial tensions and stoked longstanding mistrust of the police.

Even after Tuesday’s announcement, not everyone was ready to believe the Police Department’s account. Skepticism quickly emerged on social media, and some accused the department of trying to discredit Mr. Brown.

The Dallas police chief recently announced an internal affairs investigation into complaints about the department’s handling of the Guyger case, including the deactivation of a squad car camera on the night of the shooting and the deletion of text messages Ms. Guyger exchanged with a fellow officer.

On Tuesday, Mr. Merritt, the lawyer working with Mr. Jean’s and Mr. Brown’s relatives, continued to call for an independent third-party investigation.

“It will be nearly impossible to conduct a reliable investigation in a climate where the investigating agency has been implicated in the murder itself,” Mr. Merritt said in a statement on behalf of Mr. Brown’s family, adding that while the Dallas Police Department was leading the investigation, “a cloud of suspicion will rest over this case.”

Mr. Brown, who had a complicated history of his own, was worried about being in the public eye when he took the witness stand on Sept. 24, the second day of the Guyger trial, according to Mr. Merritt.

“He didn’t want any part of this trial,” he said. “He was intimidated by the idea of being out there in the public. And unfortunately, in the black community, cooperating with the state — even in the prosecution of a white police officer — is frowned upon.”

Mr. Merritt thought Mr. Brown’s hesitance may have had something to do with his involvement in a prior shooting in November 2018. In that encounter, Mr. Brown was shot in the foot outside a strip club in an altercation that left another man dead. Mr. Brown, who believed he had been the intended target in that shooting, had kept a low profile in the months that followed, Mr. Merritt said.

Perhaps in a sign of his reluctance to testify, Mr. Brown was not exactly dressed for court on the day he appeared for the Guyger trial: He wore blue athletic shorts and a mint-green graphic T-shirt, which he used to wipe his eyes occasionally as he spoke about his former neighbor.

Image
Credit Jeff Montgomery/Harding University

The two men, both in their mid-20s, had met but once, and Mr. Brown knew his neighbor mostly by the sound of his voice, as Mr. Jean sang gospel music and Drake lyrics in his apartment across the hall.

On the night of the shooting, Mr. Brown testified, he heard something “like two voices mixing together at the same time.” Gunshots quickly followed, he said. Crucially, he said he did not hear loud verbal commands before the gunshots, which was contrary to Ms. Guyger’s testimony that she had ordered Mr. Jean to show his hands before she pulled the trigger.

Later, from his balcony, Mr. Brown said, he could see Ms. Guyger pacing outside and talking on the phone. “She was crying, explaining what happened, what she thought happened, saying she went into the wrong apartment,” he said.

Mr. Brown, who played football at the University of South Florida and later worked as a roofing contractor, had started a business renting out residences for Airbnb.

He acknowledged during his testimony that he had previously had run-ins with the police, including a 2011 misdemeanor theft conviction and a 2016 drug conviction.

On Tuesday, the police said they had executed a search warrant at Mr. Brown’s apartment and found 12 pounds of marijuana, more than 140 grams of THC cartridges and $4,000 in cash.

It was unclear whether Mr. Brown had previously known the three suspects identified by the police as taking part in the fatal drug transaction, but the police said there was no reason to believe that the violence had anything to do with Mr. Brown’s testimony in the Guyger case.

The police said their investigation showed that one of the suspects stole Mr. Brown’s gun and backpack, a robbery that elevated the case to a capital murder charge.

Marina Trahan Martinez reported from Dallas, Sarah Mervosh from New York and Manny Fernandez from Houston.

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