A murder trial is underway in Camden County that highlights thorny issues of public safety and police accountability — and illustrates a tough-on-crime commitment by Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins. 

Higgins, who was elected in 2020, is prosecuting Varshan Brown, 49, for felony murder of LaToya James, Brown’s cousin despite a deputy stating in court he fired the fatal shots that killed the young mother during a drug raid of Brown’s Woodbine home in the early morning hours of May 4, 2021. 

Brown is also facing two counts of aggravated assault of a police officer and cocaine possession and could face life in prison or the death sentence for the events that occurred during the controversial police raid.

Brown’s public defender has raised questions about the sheriff’s office investigative tactics and potential violations of use of force and search procedures. He characterizes the law enforcement intelligence as sloppy and their actions as aggressive. 

“They didn’t follow their own guidelines and they didn’t follow the law as it requires in a knock and announce warrant,” Tobe Karrh of Swainsboro said in his opening argument. “Because of that Ms. James is dead.”

James’ mother has been one of the spectators in the courtroom this week. She has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking $25 million in damages against the Camden County Sheriff’s Office and the two deputies who shot at her daughter, who was 37 and a mother of an eight-year-old daughter.

How law enforcement handled the raid on Brown’s house is intrinsic to his defense. 

The Camden County Sheriff’s Office drug task force had been investigating Brown since 2020. An investigator concluded he was selling cocaine after gathering evidence from Brown’s trash, conducting surveillance of his house and interviewing a confidential informant.

Investigators applied for a “no-knock” warrant, something that allows officers to enter a residence without warning due to the alleged danger posed by the suspect.  They cited Brown’s past criminal record and information from the informant that Brown may have guns at the home as reasons. 

However, a Camden magistrate denied that request and instead approved a “knock-and-announce” search warrant, which requires officers to identify themselves and wait for a response when serving the warrant. 

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Brown’s lawyer claims that deputies acted in a manner no different than the “no-knock” warrant that was denied them.

According to court testimony, deputies decided to raid Brown’s home just before 5 a.m.. They gathered in tactical gear, knocked on his door and waited less than three seconds for a response before busting the door down with a battering ram. James happened to be staying with her cousin that night and morning.

Brown opened fire at the intruders. Whether or not Brown knew it was the police raiding his home is a key contention in the case. Police returned fire, killing James and injuring Brown. The deputies then searched the house and found what they allege was cocaine, cash and baggies. 

Prior to the trial’s start, Higgins offered Brown a deal to plead guilty and in exchange receive life in prison with the possibility of parole. Brown denied that deal. The prosecution rested its case on Wednesday. A jury is expected to decide on guilt later this week.

Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Prior to joining The Current, Jake worked for the Island Packet and...