Credit: Darrow Montgomery

A federal grand jury has indicted Metropolitan Police Department Officer Terence Sutton on second degree murder and obstruction charges in the death of 20-year-old Karon Hylton-Brown. MPD Lt. Andrew Zabavsky, Sutton’s supervisor, was indicted on obstruction and conspiracy charges for alleged efforts to hide their actions in the fatal incident.

Sutton was driving an unmarked police vehicle and three other officers rode with him just after 10 p.m. on Oct. 23, 2020, according to the indictment. Zabavsky was riding alone in a marked police vehicle when they attempted to stop Hylton-Brown, who was riding a moped without a helmet on the sidewalk.

Both of those actions are codified as municipal traffic violations in D.C., but it is against MPD policy to engage in vehicle pursuits for minor traffic offenses.

Hylton-Brown did not stop, and Sutton and Zabavsky pursued him with emergency lights for more than three minutes through neighborhood streets near Kennedy Street NW with pedestrians and other vehicles around, according to the indictment. Sutton drove the wrong way down a one-way street and passed multiple stop signs. At one point, Sutton reached 45 mph, according to the indictment.

The two officers communicated with each other over a closed radio while they chased Hylton-Brown, the indictment says.

“The pursuit ended when Sutton followed Hylton-Brown into an alleyway, deactivated his police vehicle’s emergency lights and sirens, and accelerated behind Hylton-Brown as Hylton-Brown approached the alleyway’s exit onto the 700 block of Kennedy Street,” the indictment reads. “Immediately upon entering the street, Hylton-Brown was struck by an oncoming civilian vehicle. The impact ejected Hylton-Brown off the moped and across the full width of the alley, in plain view of Sutton.”

Neither Sutton nor Zabavsky notified MPD’s Major Crash Section, which is responsible for investigating traffic crashes in which someone is seriously injured or killed, the indictment says. Nor did either of the two officers tell officials in their chain of command about Hylton-Brown’s injuries, that a vehicle pursuit preceded the crash, or that they were involved in the pursuit, the indictment says.

Meanwhile, Hylton-Brown lay “motionless, unconscious, and with a pool of blood collecting underneath his head,” according to the indictment.

Federal prosecutors go on to allege that immediately following the pursuit and crash, Sutton and Zabavsky worked to hide their involvement in the fatal incident and obstruct an investigation as they received updates on Hylton-Brown’s condition at the hospital.

“Fewer than 21 minutes after the collision, before leaving the scene, Sutton and Zabavsky deactivated their MPD-issued body-worn cameras (BWCs) and conferred privately,” the indictment says.

At the Fourth District station, the indictment says, Sutton and Zabavsky “provided a misleading account of the incident to the Watch Commander,” where Sutton denied pursing Hylton-Brown, and Zabavsky withheld “all information about his involvement in the incident,” the indictment says.

Neither officer reported Hylton-Brown’s injuries. Yet, for the next 30 minutes, the officers received updates on his condition, learning his skull was fractured and he required a breathing tube. Only then did Zabavsky provide those details to the watch commander, the indictment says. Asked by the watch commander, Zabavsky “still maintained that he did not know whether Sutton had engaged in a police vehicular pursuit,” the indictment says.

Yet, at one point during the pursuit, Zabavsky announced over the private radio channel, “We’re chasing Karon on a scooter right now,” prosecutors allege in the indictment.

The indictment further alleges that Zabavsky told an uninvolved MPD officer, who had begun gathering information for a police report, that Sutton would write the report. Yet neither Sutton nor Zabavsky obtained witness statements despite the fact that at least one witness approached them. When Sutton left the scene, “he drove his MPD vehicle directly over physical evidence from Hylton-Brown’s moped.”

During an initial hearing Friday afternoon, Judge Zia M. Faruqui rejected the recommendation from D.C. Pretrial Services to detain Sutton in jail. The judge opted instead to follow prosecutor’s request to keep Sutton on home detention. The judge also allowed Sutton to travel to his mother’s house in Delaware.

Sutton is ordered to stay away from the Fourth District, where the incident took place and where he worked as an officer on the crime suppression team, and not to contact specific witnesses. He is still allowed to contact members of MPD who are not on the no-contact list.

Faruqui ordered Zabavsky to abide by a curfew of midnight to 6 a.m., to stay away from the Fourth District, and not contact a list of witnesses that was not made public.

Shortly after the indictment was made public, MPD Chief Robert Contee sent a note to the department. It is pasted below:

MPD Family, 

A part of the process of transparency is having an independent review of use of force.  Following a nearly year-long review of the October 2020 death of Karon Hylton, the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) has announced this morning their decision to prosecute two MPD members in connection with Mr. Hylton’s death. This announcement will, undoubtedly, elicit many emotions from the MPD family. Due to the pending litigation, I can only offer you limited information on the matter at this time, but I felt it was necessary that you hear of the USAO’s decision from me before an official MPD statement is released to the media and the community more broadly or a press conference to be held this afternoon. 

The criminal charges included in the indictment against these two members are serious, including an officer charged with Murder II, Conspiracy, and Obstruction of Justice and a lieutenant with Conspiracy and Obstruction of Justice. Both members are afforded the opportunity to secure a robust defense throughout the proceedings. 

I encourage every MPD member to read the criminal indictment themselves to better understand the decision of the USAO announced today.  

Each of you face many challenges on a daily basis, some seemingly insurmountable. Yet, you continue to work toward securing the safety of our city and, for that, I am thankful.

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