Varshan Brown, 49, of Woodbine listens to court proceedings on Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

Who is responsible for the death of a young mother killed by a Camden County Sheriff deputy’s bullet while he and his team executed a search warrant before dawn at her cousin’s house?

A jury in Camden County on Thursday decided to acquit the man on trial for murder — 49-year-old Varshan Brown of Woodbine — who was facing life in prison despite not firing the fatal shots. However, he did not escape prison time, due to the jury finding him guilty on his other charges.

The controversial case prosecuted by Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins illustrated competing views of public safety, police standards and victims’ rights.  After approximately six hours of deliberation, the jury sided with Brown’s public defender, who argued that the deputies’ irresponsible actions and violations of protocol created the circumstances that led to Latoya James’ death on May 4, 2021. 

“It’s but for the violations of their own policy and the law that Ms. James is dead,” Karrh said in his closing statements. “That’s why you have to find Mr. Brown not guilty.”

Deputies, who had Brown under surveillance in 2021 for alleged drug dealing, forcibly entered his house at around 5 a.m. approximately two seconds after announcing themselves at the door. Brown, believing his home was being invaded, opened fire, and James, who was spending the night, was fatally shot when police returned fire.

The jury, which was composed of three Black, one Hispanic and eight white people, found Brown guilty of five other crimes: two counts of aggravated assault on a police officer, one count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and two weapons charges. Superior Court Judge Roger Lane sentenced Brown to life in prison with the possibility of parole, due to his second conviction for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

Superior Court Roger Lane presided over the four-day trial of Varshan Brown in Camden County. He sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

“You are a danger to every citizen in Camden County based on your conduct not only in this action but in all previous actions, dealing with drugs and poisoning the folks of Camden County,” Lane said after sentencing Brown. 

Still, the four-day trial represents a setback for Higgins, who since his election in 2020 has tried to walk the line as a prosecutor who takes police misconduct seriously while also being tough on crime. 

It also heightens the spotlight on Camden’s Sheriff’s Office under Jim Proctor that for the last five years has incurred more than $2 million in insurance claims and settlements, largely due to deputy chases, traffic stops and jailhouse violence, according to the Board of Commissioners. 

The Current has previously reported on a deputy facing state charges for excessive force, a Florida man who claimed he was racially profiled in a traffic stop and the agency’s loss in insurance coverage due to excessive claims.

Five former Camden deputies currently face indictments from excessive force charges in the last year.

The mother and twin sister of LaToya James attend the trial of her cousin, Varshan Brown, who is accused of her murder. Betty James (mother, right) and LaTonya James (sister, left) said they are there to support Varshan. They believe Camden County Sheriff’s deputies are at fault for LaToya’s death. Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

Throughout Brown’s trial, James’ mother and her twin sister who are helping raise LaToya’s daughter made clear their views of who was guilty for LaToya’s death. They sat on the defendant’s side of the courtroom, rather than the prosecution side. 

“They took my baby’s life,” Betty James said of the sheriff’s deputies.

She has filed a civil suit against the Sheriff’s Office for wrongful death.

Investigation leads to messy drug raid

Despite the department’s checkered history, Higgins believed that the deputies acted appropriately during the raid on Brown’s house and originally indicted the Woodbine resident on six counts, including murder. 

At trial, which took place at the Camden County Courthouse in Woodbine, Higgins’ strategy was to concentrate on the alleged criminal behavior of Brown, and rarely mentioned James, the victim.

The D.A. emphasized the point in his closing arguments.

“He’s the one who shot at police,” Higgins said, pointing at Brown. “He’s the one who showed callous disregard. He’s the one that caused her death.” 

Higgins asked the jurors in closing arguments, would they want to live in a county that “allows drug dealers to shoot at police officers with impunity and without consequence?” 

Karrh, meanwhile, spent much of the trial trying to undermine the facts presented by officers in the raid. Deputies from the sheriff’s drug task force began investigating Brown in 2020, after a confidential informant alleged he was dealing cocaine. according to court testimony. 

Investigator Michael Blaquiere said he drove by Brown’s every day to conduct surveillance to ascertain whether the residence was a “trap house,” a known drug den.

Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins holds evidence from the trial of Varshan Brown: “The truth of this case is Varshan Brown is a drug dealer. That he makes profit upon the misery of others.” Credit: Justin Tyalor/The Current

He set up a camera borrowed from the Naval base at King’s Bay and used the live feed to identify cars coming and going from the house. Blaquiere later admitted in court that the camera broke and no photos were ever saved from the feed. 

Blaquiere testified that he had found additional evidence —a  “white powdery substance” — in Brown’s trash. His confidential informant also told him that Brown may have guns at home. That intelligence, along with Brown’s previous convictions of battery, cocaine possession/trafficking prompted him to ask a judge for a “no-knock” warrant.

A no-knock warrant allows officers to search a property without giving verbal notice of the search because doing so would put officers’ safety or the evidence at risk. 

Yet the magistrate denied that type of warrant and instead approved a standard “knock-and-announce” warrant, which requires officers to knock and announce their identity and intent to search before entering a property.

Deputies in the drug task force testified that they created an operational plan for their planned search of Brown’s house. More than a dozen deputies participated in the raid. Seven dressed in tactical gear approached Brown’s front door just before 5 a.m.

Deputy Downy Casey, armed with a Glock pistol and tactical shield, led the line of deputies and announced “Sheriff’s office, search warrant!” One second later, an unnamed deputy yelled “hit it,” and deputies used a battering ram to force through Brown’s door, according to body camera footage taken from Casey. 

Casey and Blaquiere testified this week that neither knew who gave the order to force their way in. Casey’s tactical shield blocked much of the body camera footage accepted into evidence.

Casey and Blaquiere then entered a bedroom and saw two people, one of whom was an armed Varshan Brown. Brown shot at them, they testified, and they shot back, killing James. 

Public defender Tobe Karrh, of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, argues that his client Varshan Brown should not be held responsible for his cousin’s death. “If you don’t have enough evidence to make the decision, you have to acquit,” he told the jury Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

James happened to be staying with Brown that night, a fact unknown to the deputies, and a point that Brown’s attorney said illustrated some of the deputies’ irresponsible behavior. 

“You pull up and there’s another vehicle parked behind (Brown’s car),” Karrh asked Casey in his cross examination of the deputy. Wasn’t that “further proof to you that there’s more than one person in the house?”

“Could be. Yes sir,” Casey said. 

“You testified you were worried about the safety of the officers behind you,” Karrh asked, “but what about the safety of the people who are not suspects or not the object of a search warrant?”

“Pertaining to this incident, I did not cause that shooting. We did not cause that shooting,” Casey responded. “There’s many residences we enter to do search warrants where suspects comply and victims are also in the house and not suspects.”

Legal tightrope

Higgins’ charging decisions balanced a narrow legal framework. The principal charge — felony murder — is a crime that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment or death in Georgia. 

Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins stands beside a poster board while making his closing arguments to the jury on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

For the jury to accept the D.A.’s argument they would have had to agree to a straightforward premise: did Brown know the people raiding his house were police officers?

In Higgins’ theory of the case, he did. Georgia defines felony murder “when, in the commission of a felony, he or she causes the death of another human being irrespective of malice.”

The felony that Brown committed that caused his cousin’s death was aggravated assault of a police officer, according to Higgins. 

“Varshan Brown had a loaded gun, with malice in his heart and evil intent. He meant to kill cops,” Higgins told jurors on Thursday.

Karrh said the argument didn’t make sense, given the speed at which the officers entered Brown’s home. Deputies raided the dark home guided by flashlights mounted on their rifles and handguns. 

Speaking to the jury, Karrh said they couldn’t hold Brown to a standard no man can be held to“that at 5 a.m. in the morning, with lights blinding him, he was supposed to know they were police officers.”

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...