Two D.C. police officers have been indicted in the death of Karon Hylton-Brown in Northwest last fall.
Terence Sutton, 37, a 10-year police veteran, has been charged with second-degree murder, conspiracy and obstruction of justice; Andrew Zabavsky, Sutton’s lieutenant in charge of the Fourth District and an 18-year veteran, was charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice in an indictment handed up Thursday and unsealed Friday.
In a virtual hearing Friday afternoon, Sutton and Zavasky pleaded not guilty to all charges. Sutton was given home detention; Zavasky, location monitoring and a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew. Both were ordered to stay away from the Fourth District and not to have any contact with witnesses in the case.
Sutton was put on administrative leave immediately after the crash; Zabavsky was on duty until Thursday.
“Police officers are sworn to uphold the law and ensure the safety of the community. The vast majority of officers execute their duties in an exemplary manner, and we are grateful for their dedicated service,” Acting U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips said in a statement. “But when a select few violate their oath by engaging in criminal conduct, they cannot do so with impunity and must be held accountable. This indictment seeks to do just that.”
The conspiracy charges carry a maximum sentence of five years; the obstruction charges, up to 20 years; the murder charge, up to 40 years, or life if there are certain aggravating circumstances.
According to the indictment, on the night of Oct. 23, 2020, Hylton-Brown, 20, was riding a Revel rental scooter, which has a top speed of 30 mph, on the sidewalk and without a helmet – both of which are traffic violations – in the 400 block of Kennedy Street. Sutton and Zabavsky, in separate police cars, tried to stop him. When he didn’t stop, both officers turned on their lights and pursued him.
The D.C. police can’t pursue a vehicle if the only reason is to make a traffic stop.
The indictment says that for more than three minutes, Sutton pursued Hylton-Brown “through neighborhood streets with pedestrians and other vehicles present,” at times reaching 45 mph, and driving the wrong way on one-way streets and through seven stop signs. Zabavsky went in a different direction and tried to cut Hylton-Brown off.
Hylton-Brown went down an alley that connects the 700 blocks of Jefferson and Kennedy streets, with Sutton in pursuit, in the 700 block of Kennedy Street. When he came out onto Kennedy Street, he was hit by a driver. He never regained consciousness and died two days later.
Both officers failed to take any witness statements except from the driver who hit Hylton-Brown, the indictment said. About 20 minutes after the crash, Sutton let the driver leave; Sutton and Zabavsky, 53, turned off their body cameras, talked privately, then left the scene – Sutton in his police car, in violation of procedure.
The indictment says the two officers also lied to a superior, saying Sutton didn’t chase Hylton-Brown (and thus delaying an internal affairs investigation) and minimizing his injuries, even as they learned his condition was deteriorating.
‘I’m not surprised’
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said, “I want to reserve full comment until I have a chance to see the charging documents,” but added, “I’m not surprised that there was an indictment — we recognize that it appeared to be that one of our policies was violated.”
She added, “I fully expect that officers will be concerned about their own safety or their ability to do their job — but they know that the chief and I expect them to do exactly that: to act like professionals, to do their job, to keep neighborhoods across the District of Columbia safe.”
Hylton-Brown’s death inspired protests in D.C. late last year. Hylton-Brown’s father was arrested during one of the protests; his mother confronted Bowser at a tourism event this June.
D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee said the police would do their own investigation after the criminal justice process works itself out.
Addressing D.C. police officers, the chief said, “I know that this indictment today may seem like an indictment of all of the members of the department … . I assure you that there are many in the community, who recognize the hard work that you do, who support the work that you do, who understand that you make decisions, split second decisions, and you do it professionally; you do it constitutionally; you do it procedurally correct, day in and day out.”
He added, “We will continue to support the good work that our officers continue to do. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the situation that we are dealing with today. But I assure you, we will get through this together.”
In the hearing, Sutton’s lawyer said the pursuit of Hylton-Brown was justified because officers justifiably believed he had a gun. Contee said he wasn’t familiar with the argument, but said, “We have a very, very clear policy” on pursuits. He added that he “would not concur” with the lawyer’s assertion that police have essentially given up on the Kennedy Street area because of the investigation into Hylton-Brown’s death.
Charles Allen, the chair of the D.C. Council’s Public Safety Committee, told WTOP the indictment was “a step that many people just frankly didn’t think would happen. It’s incredibly rare when we see prosecution of police officers, and so I I’m grateful to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for taking this case so seriously, and bringing the charges forward.”
Referring to the fact that Zabavsky remained on duty so long, Allen said, “I think there’s a lot that’s really troubling here.”
Contee said Zabavsky was kept on duty because the grand jury’s work was secret. “Once we learned of his potentially being charged, he was removed from duty. But it’s really a secret process with the grand jury.”
D.C. Council Member Janeese Lewis George said in a statement, “This indictment is not justice for Karon. Justice would be Karon still being with us. But this is a necessary first step towards accountability and healing.”
She added, “As we work to end gun violence, our laws and our justice system must consistently model the principle that Black Lives Matter,” and said she was in the Kennedy Street neighborhood Friday. “The young people I spoke to on Kennedy Street today felt seen and believed by their government for the first time.”
The incident was recorded on video:
WTOP’s Kristi King and Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.