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Family lawsuit: Feds rushed in without approved plan, killed Brandon webber

Secrecy continues to surround use-of-force case that stirred unrest last year

Police retreat June 12, 2019, under a cloud of tear gas as protesters disperse from the scene of a standoff after Frayser residents took to the streets in anger against the shooting a youth identified by family members as Brandon Webber by U.S. Marshals earlier in the evening. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)
Police retreat June 12, 2019, under a cloud of tear gas thrown to quell protesters who gathered following the shooting of Brandon Webber by U.S. Marshals. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Brandon Webber offers a radically different narrative for the officer-involved shooting that killed the 20-year-old student last year, stirring wide unrest in Memphis. 

Authorities have said Webber was shot after he rammed law enforcement vehicles with a car and then emerged with a weapon.

But the suit filed late Friday, June 12 in U.S. District Court — two hours before a one-year statute of limitations was set to expire — contends it was officers who rammed Webber and then shot him repeatedly with high-powered rifles as he sat “peacefully’’ in a car in his mother’s driveway.

The suit calls his shooting “the brazen and unlawful killing of a young black man.”

“Just prior to the shooting, the Victim was visible and not hiding. He was not threatening anyone,’’ says the suit filed on behalf of Webber’s parents. It names five members of a federal task force as defendants and seeks $25 million in damages.

On June 12, 2019, Carlos Clark (center) holds his sister Jaleta Clark, mother of 20-year-old Brandon Webber, who was shot by U.S. Marshals in Frayser. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

“Certain wound trajectories from the Medical Examiner’s Report suggest the Victim received some of his wounds while his hands were extended in front of him, palms facing out in a gesture of surrender,’’ says the suit that relies on medical evidence and previously untapped accounts of unnamed witnesses.

“… Eyewitnesses saw the shooters then yank his limp body through the passenger-side window and, slam him to the ground, then stand around to watch him die.’’

Representatives of the U.S. Marshals-Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force, which was attempting to serve a warrant when Webber was killed, could not be reached Friday for comment.

The lawsuit comes amid growing unrest over police conduct.

Police use of force has taken a public stage as never before following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protests in Memphis and other cities nationwide have stirred efforts to reform or “defund’’ police departments. Proposals now before the Memphis City Council include posting excessive force complaints and data on the city’s website.

In Memphis, the shooting of Webber has been especially vexing to many because of secrecy surrounding the case.

Webber was killed as members of the Marshal’s task force attempted to arrest him for allegedly shooting a man five times during an auto theft in Mississippi and leaving him for dead. Webber’s family never believed that official narrative, and the death of the seemingly promising on-again, off-again college student sparked wide unrest here.

Even now, answers are hard to come by – in part, because of a secretive process protecting reports of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which investigated the shooting.

Webber family attorney Bruce Kramer said he only received the names of the shooters hours before filing the suit. The TBI’s investigative report has been in the hands of Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirch for months, but she resisted repeated requests to turn it over, Kramer said.

“She’s not obligated to turn it over to us. That’s one of the problems,’’ he said.

Without the names of the shooters, the family would have been forced to sue anonymous defendants — “John Does” — creating possible legal challenges in which the officers who shot Webber may contend they didn’t receive proper notice within the one-year limitation, Kramer said.

Weirich declined a request for an interview Friday. “All we can say is it’s in the review process,’’ Weirich spokesman Larry Buser said in an email.

TBI records — even those involving closed investigations — have long been exempt from public disclosure.

Hundreds of North Memphis residents gather on Durham Avenue for a vigil to remember 20-year-old Brandon Webber who was shot Wednesday June 12, 2019 by U.S. Marshals in Frayser. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

But in a compromise reached in 2017 following a series of police shootings of unarmed African-American men, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law allowing the release of TBI investigative records involving officer-involved shooting deaths after completion of the investigation and “completion of the prosecutorial function by the district attorney.’’

Weirich’s office refers incidents of fatal shootings by Memphis police and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office to the TBI for investigation in accordance with a memorandum of understanding first signed in 2015. The TBI then submits its final reports to the District Attorney for review.

Although state law generally restricts release of the reports until after the investigation is completed, it gives district attorneys discretion to “disclose all or part of the investigative record’’ prior to completion of the investigation.

An autopsy report released in February said Webber was shot 16 times, twice in the head and multiple times throughout his body.

The lawsuit contends unmarked SUVs “raced down Durham Avenue” in Frayser toward the home of Jaleta Clark, Webber’s mother, while he sat in a coupe in her driveway

“One or more of these unmarked vehicles sped over neighboring front lawns, nearly crushing the little girl next door, and rammed into the Coupe,’’ the suit says. “Upon information and belief, the impact from one or more of the unmarked SUV’s disabled and immobilized the Coupe, boxing the Victim into a corner of the driveway. According to multiple eyewitness accounts, immediately after ramming the Coupe’s front and driver’s side, the Shooters, who wore no uniforms or insignia to identify them as law enforcement, jumped out of the vehicle and, with no verbal warning, identification, or other reasonable notice, shot the victim using high-powered rifles.’’

 The suit names five officers though it’s not clear in each instance which specific agency they work for. The task force is made up of federal, state and local law enforcement. 

Plaintiffs in the suit include Webber’s mother, Clark, and his father, Sonny Webber.

The suit was filed by Kramer, a long-time Memphis civil rights attorney, and Jacob Webster Brown.

This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Marc Perrusquia
Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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