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Former Lonoke County deputy surrenders to state police; ex-lawman charged with manslaughter in shooting of Hunter Brittain

by Ashton Eley, Teresa Moss | September 17, 2021 at 2:24 p.m.
Jeff Phillips, special prosecutor, announces his decision to charge former Lonoke county deputy Michael Davis with felony manslaughter during a press conference in the Russellville courthouse on Friday, September 17, 2021. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

RUSSELLVILLE — A former Lonoke County deputy charged with felony manslaughter in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Hunter Brittain surrendered to state police Friday.

The arrest came after the deputy, Sgt. Michael Davis, was charged with felony manslaughter in the June 23 shooting that killed 17-year-old Hunter Brittain during an early morning traffic stop. Fifth Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Phillips announced the charge during a news conference Friday morning at the Pope County Courthouse.

Phillips’ decision was met with clapping and cheers of “thank you, Jesus” by family and friends in the courthouse during the news conference. Phillips was named special prosecutor for the case July 12 and was passed the Arkansas State Police investigative file July 15.

Davis, who faces three to 10 years if convicted, will have a bond hearing Monday, Phillips said. To be charged with manslaughter, a person must be found to have recklessly caused the death of another person, an affidavit for Davis states.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » arkansasonline.com/918brittain/]

The former deputy surrendered to Arkansas State Police Criminal Investigation Division agents about noon Friday, according to a state police news release. It said Davis, 30, of Ward, was taken to the Lonoke County Detention Center for the booking process. He will be transported to an undisclosed county jail where he will await his bond hearing.

Hunter Brittain’s family said Friday they wanted murder charges to be filed against Davis but were happy that felony charges were made.

[DOCUMENT: Coroner’s report for Noah Hunter Brittain » arkansasonline.com/coronerbrittain]

“As long as he gets a felony charge where we don’t have to worry about him owning a gun,” Rebecca Payne, Brittain’s grandmother who raised him in the last years of his life, said Friday.

Jesse Brittain, Hunter’s uncle, said his nephew should have been in school Friday and that he should have been working toward his NASCAR dreams.

Davis was fired soon after the shooting. He has retained Little Rock attorney Robert Newcomb, who is known for representing police officers terminated from positions.

“The state has the right to file the charges they think are appropriate,” Newcomb said about 1 p.m. Friday. “The defendant has the right to enter a plea of not guilty. Mr. Davis plans to plea not guilty and request a trial before our citizens.”

Newcomb said he and his client learned about the charges while watching Phillips' 10 a.m. news conference.

A summary on the affidavit states Davis fired one shot that struck Brittain in the neck during a 3 a.m. traffic stop near Mahoney’s Body Shop, south of Cabot, at 7180 Arkansas Highway 89 South.

During the traffic stop Brittain exited the truck and moved to the rear of his vehicle as it rolled backwards toward the front of Davis’ patrol car, according to a statement from Arkansas State Police special agent Corp. Gregg P. Bray included in the affidavit.

Bray states that Davis notified dispatchers of a shot fired after Brittain fell to the ground. Jordan King, a passenger in Brittain’s truck, was detained as the truck was cleared. After the truck was cleared, aid was rendered to Brittain, who was transported to Baptist Health Medical Center in North Little Rock by Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services where he died later.

King told investigators that Brittain was working on his truck’s transmission with friends on the evening of June 22 and the early morning hours of June 23. King and Brittain noticed a police vehicle following them during a test drive of the truck, he said.

“Brittain slowed down, put his blinker on and pulled to the left side of the roadway,” King states in the affidavit.

"As they were getting pulled over by the deputy, they were laughing and thought it was funny because the truck was smoking, and that Brittain was trying to get off the highway,” the affidavit states.

Davis’ account of the shooting is that Brittain continued driving his white GMC truck briefly after Davis had initiated the traffic stop. He noted the vehicle crossed the southbound lane and at one point stopped in the northbound lane. The truck’s engine revved at this point. Dispatch was not notified of a pursuit at this time because Davis told investigators he noticed Brittain was attempting to turn into the auto body shop, the affidavit states.

Brittain exited the vehicle before Davis had put his patrol vehicle in park, the deputy told state police. He said Brittain slipped on gravel as he quickly made his way to the rear of the vehicle. Davis also said he gave several verbal commands for the teen to get back into the vehicle, the affidavit states.

King told police he and Brittain opened their doors as soon as they stopped because the vehicle was smoking. King said Brittain left the vehicle, and that he didn’t hear any commands given to Brittain regarding showing of hands or anything similar before hearing gunshots.

Davis told police he fired his weapon as Brittain started to put his hands into the back of the truck, the affidavit states. As the bullet struck Brittain, he saw a container come from the teen’s hands and land on the ground. The deputy reiterated to investigators that he could not see what was in the teen’s hands prior to shooting.

Attorneys for Brittain’s family have said the teen was grabbing a blue plastic bottle of antifreeze to place behind the wheel because the vehicle wouldn’t shift into park.

Brittain’s family retained national civil rights attorneys Ben Crump and Devon Jacob after the case received widespread attention.

Crump and Jacob also represented the family of George Floyd, a 46-year-old man who died last year while in police custody in Minneapolis and whose death helped spark a wave of protests across the nation focused on police brutality and racism. Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in Floyd’s death.

Sheriff John Staley Sheriff John Staley fired Davis days after the shooting for breaking department policy by not turning on his body camera before encountering a member of the public. The sheriff said at that time there was no video of the shooting, only the aftermath.

Brittain’s death has led family members and others to call for a state law that would require all body cameras to be active when law enforcement interact with the public. Kwami Abdul-Bey, political action chairman for the Jacksonville NAACP, voiced support for “Hunter’s Law” at a rally July 6 after Brittain’s funeral. He said the organization intends to help write and get a bill proposed in the next legislative session.

The family’s attorneys have said they plan to file a civil suit.

Davis was hired as a deputy by the Lonoke County sheriff’s office in 2013 after working for a transport supervisor for the jail for about a year, according to his application acquired by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette through an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request. He was promoted to sergeant in January of last year.

Following his firing, Davis requested a grievance hearing from Lonoke County. The county has yet to announce whether it will grant the hearing.

It’s rare for law enforcement officers to be charged in use of deadly force cases in Arkansas.

Joshua Hastings, a Little Rock officer who shot 15-year-old Bobby Moore in August 2012, was charged and tried twice for manslaughter. Prosecutors dropped the charge in 2014 after both trials ended with jurors unable to reach verdicts.

In April 2017, nearly five years after her son was killed, a jury in the federal trial awarded Sylvia Perkins $415,000 in damages, saying Hastings violated Moore’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force when he fired two bullets into a car Moore was driving. Later, Hastings was ordered to pay an additional $382,585 in attorneys fees and costs to Perkins. Hastings filed for bankruptcy in March 2018.

In late 2010, former Bella Vista officer Coleman Brackney pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, a Class A misdemeanor, in the fatal shooting of 41-year-old James Ahern after a high-speed chase that January. Brackney was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $1,000. He was originally charged with felony manslaughter, which is punishable by three to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Officials repeatedly denied requests from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to release body camera footage from the Brittain shooting, citing it as part of an ongoing investigation.

Arkansas State Police and Lonoke County Prosecutor Chuck Graham initially denied oral requests for the body camera footage in the days after the shooting. Police denied a formal Freedom of Information Act request for the footage July 14, and special prosecutor Phillips denied a July 14 formal request on July 19.

An email from state police also stated that Graham, who had recused, had opposed the release of the footage at that time.

Graham, who officially recused himself from the case July 8, denied the newspaper’s Freedom of Information request July 15. He stated the investigation file, which originally was delivered to him, had been passed to the Arkansas Prosecutor Coordinating Office.

This story has been updated. It was originally published at 10:27 a.m.

CLARIFICATION: A quote from Hunter Brittain's grandmother has been clarified for accuracy.

Jeff Phillips, special prosecutor, announces his decision to charge former Lonoke county deputy Michael Davis with felony manslaughter during a press conference in the Russellville courthouse on Friday, September 17, 2021.
Jeff Phillips, special prosecutor, announces his decision to charge former Lonoke county deputy Michael Davis with felony manslaughter during a press conference in the Russellville courthouse on Friday, September 17, 2021.
Hunter Brittain (left) and then-Sgt. Michael Davis of the Lonoke County sheriff's office are shown in this undated compilation of courtesy photos.
Hunter Brittain (left) and then-Sgt. Michael Davis of the Lonoke County sheriff's office are shown in this undated compilation of courtesy photos.
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