– Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023 –

Thorny issues in Camden murder trial

Superior Court Judge Roger Lane listens to closing arguments, before dismissing the jury to deliberations in the trial of Varshan Brown on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

Good morning – Jake here. This week’s edition of the public safety newsletter comes from the pews of the Camden County courthouse. 

I’ve been the only reporter in the courtroom for all of the first three days in a murder trial underway in Woodbine. This isn’t just any murder case — it’s laying bare police accountability and public safety issues in the county, following Camden sheriff’s deputies’ drug raid that left a young mother, Latoya James, dead on May 4, 2021 .

Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins is prosecuting Varshan Brown, 49, for the murder of his cousin, James, as well as assaulting police officers and possession of cocaine. Higgins alleges Brown should be held accountable for his cousin’s death — he shot at the officers raiding his Woodbine home at around 5 a.m., and an officer fatally shot James in the gunfire exchange, according to court testimony. That would have never happened if Brown didn’t shoot at the officers first, Higgins is arguing.

Brown’s public defender, Tobe Karrh, raised questions about deputies’ tactics, arguing they violating numerous department rules and were reckless in executing the search warrant. Karrh says the deputies likely broke the law, but his client did not.

Observations from the courtroom: 

  • DA Keith Higgins himself is prosecuting this case. It’s rare for district attorneys to try cases themselves, often leaving that duty to their staffs. It highlights the weight Higgins is putting on this case and burnishing his reputation as a law-and-order prosecutor. He was elected in 2020 after allegations of meddling in the Ahmaud Arbery case pushed ex-DA Jackie Johnson out of office.
  • The family of Latoya James is not sitting on the prosecution side of the courtroom. Family members have indicated they are there to support Brown, not the DA’s prosecution. The DA’s victim’s advocate, whose job is to support and stay by the side of crime victims, has had little to do during this trial. 

Read here for our story on what’s happened so far in the trial and background on the case.

Firefighters and libraries

While my attention has mostly been focused on covering this trial (I can’t be everywhere at once, unfortunately), here are two public safety stories that The Current found significant this past week:

Photo from the University of Kentucky First Responder Research Laboratory, whose faculty received a $1.1 million grant in Dec. 2022 to study firefighter injuries. A Georgia Southern University faculty member is now assisting in this study. Credit: University of Kentucky

Georgia Southern aids in firefighter wellness study: A professor at Georgia Southern University is assisting researchers from the University of Kentucky, who were awarded a $1.1 million grant from federal emergency officials to study firefighter injuries in the hopes of reducing them. Bridget Melton, Ed.D., professor in the Department of Health Sciences and Kinesiology at Georgia Southern is assisting the research team, according to the university.

Firefighters are prone to what’s known as musculoskeletal injuries (MSI), which are essentially injuries gained through physical work to one’s tendons, muscles, spinal discs, etc., according to the researchers’ grant proposal. The best way to treat these injuries are ready access to athletic trainers and physical therapists, but it’s not something widely implemented across fire departments nor is it studied very well, according to the proposal. The three-year study seeks to collect data on MSIs among firefighters, the effects increased health care initiatives could have on the injuries, and suggestions as well as barriers to implementation at fire departments.

A bookshelf at the Woodbine Public Library in Camden County. Credit: Sonia Chajet Wides and Kate Griem / The Current

How libraries can play a role in reducing gun violence (The Trace) Yes, you read that right. Our friends at The Trace reported on an unusual partnership between a public library system and a gun safety initiative, where a Maryland library distributed gun locks to parents who have firearms in their homes.

The potential of libraries supporting public safety are due to its ubiquity in neighborhoods across the economic spectrum, its perception as oases of safety and calm as opposed to the unease some might feel visiting a police department and the numerous free community resources it offers residents. Studies also back up how strong library systems can help in the fight against gun violence.

If you have any questions, comments or story ideas, feel free to email me at jakeshore.thecurrent@gmail.com. Watch our website as we cover the outcome of the Varshan Brown trial this week.

DA prosecutes Camden murder trial from 2021 fatal police raid

Brunswick-area District Attorney Keith Higgins is prosecuting Varshan Brown for felony murder of his cousin, LaToya James, despite police saying they fired the fatal shots during a May 4, 2021 drug raid.

Continue reading…

Civil Rights activists alarmed at Breonna Taylor-type death in Camden

After charges filed against officers in Breonna Taylor’s case, a similar incident in Camden County GA did not end the same way. Deputies who shot Latoya James won’t face criminal prosecution and instead the district attorney indicted James’ cousin Varshan Brown for murder.

Continue reading…

Development continues as Liberty County fire protection lags 

Liberty County officials have pushed for warehouse development while its fire department lacks key equipment and safety standards. A historic home fire in November displayed the glaring deficiencies at the fire department.

Continue reading…

Being a librarian: Helping everyone get access to information, resources

The Covid pandemic highlighted the resources community libraries provide and showed how they can evolve for the future.

Continue reading…

Camden budget cuts all Woodbine library funding

Following a budget showdown in Camden County, Georgia, a local library was left with nothing. Advocates worry that low-income and at-risk kids will suffer.

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As book bans gain favor, some target libraries next

From July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, 138 school districts in 32 states banned books, according to PEN America.

Continue reading…

Support independent, solutions-based investigative journalism without bias, fear or favor on issues affecting Savannah and Coastal Georgia.

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...