SHELBY, North Carolina -- Officers lined the courtroom as Irving Lucien Fenner Jr. pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the death of Shelby Police Officer Tim Brackeen. Tears flowed down faces as he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After weeks of jury selection for the capital murder trial, the Cleveland County District Attorney's Office accepted a plea proposal proposed by the defense three weeks ago.
"I will always feel that Irving Fenner Jr. deserves the death penalty," said Assistant District Attorney Sally Kirby-Turner, her voice cracked slightly at the words.
Fenner, 26, was accused of shooting Brackeen on Sept. 10, 2016, when the 12-year veteran officer attempted to serve several warrants on him. Brackeen succumbed to his injuries two days later in a Charlotte hospital.
The defense originally tenured a plea in hopes of saving Fenner from the death penalty, said lead defense attorney Victoria Jayne.
"Our client accepted responsibility soon after this happened," Jayne said. "He has never denied he has been involved in the shooting of Officer Brackeen. Of course, his account as to why it happened and how it happened has given us a lot to mull over and investigate in the past three years."
The decision to accept came after trying to select a jury, the struggle to find jurors that would be open to the death penalty was extremely difficult, Kirby-Turner said. When the death penalty was taken away the DA's office decided to "secure justice," and not take a chance on Fenner being found guilty of second-degree murder.
"We knew if that happened he would walk out the door in 20 years. We knew it would be in the lifetime of Mikel Brackeen, Stephen Brackeen, most of his family and certainly Daphney Brackeen' Personally, I could not live with that possibility," Kirby-Turner said.
Those names reflected Brackeen's wife, brother and child.
Tears fell from Kirby-Turner's eyes as she tried to put into words the impact Brackeen had on the community. While she wanted to seek the death penalty, it was logic and reason that won out, she said.
"It is our responsibility as prosecutors to not only seek justice, but to secure it, and we made that choice to ensure that this man would never walk out the door of a prison again."
Kirby-Turner faced Brackeen's family and choked out an apology.
"I'm sorry' that I couldn't do' better," she said.
During the sentencing, the prosecution presented evidence including the few seconds of Brackeen's body camera footage.
The dark footage was showed twice in court. The first time Brackeen's wife, mother, stepmother and other family members chose to leave. They returned shortly after it played.
In the footage, dark outlines and bright flashes of light from shots being fired could be seen.
Shelby Police Lt. Scott Champion, who was the lead investigator in the case, stated Brackeen yelled for someone to stop. Then Fenner tells Brackeen to stop moving or he'd shoot.
Brackeen yelled for "John." And then six shots rang out.
Police identified five came from a .38-caliber revolver Fenner had and one from Brackeen's .45-caliber semi-automatic Glock.
Champion later asked for a clip of the video to be played again frame-by-frame to show where the different guns had fired.
As the video began to play for a second time, they were not able to stop and do a frame-by-frame. As the shots rang out again, Brackeen's wife, Mikel, ran from the courtroom crying. Her wails and cries could be heard from inside the courtroom.
Fenner put his head into his hands as the cries echoed.
Who shot first?
In a video shot several hours after the incident, and shown in court Tuesday, Fenner admitted to being involved in the shooting. He claimed Brackeen never identified himself and shot him first.
Champion has no doubt that Fenner shot first in this situation, but believes that some of what Fenner says happen could not be true.
"I do believe that there are parts that are accurate. I also believe that there are parts that are very inaccurate," Champion said.
The one shot Brackeen got off, hit Fenner in the lower left side, traveled underneath his skin and hit his shoulder blade.
Brackeen suffered two gunshot wounds. The first was a non-fatal shot to the chest where the bullet penetrated his vest and sunk an inch into his pectoral muscle. The other came from point-blank range at the back of his neck, according to the N.C. Medical Examiner's report.
No one wins
"In these cases, no one wins," said Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin in his remarks at the end of the hearing.
Stephen Brackeen, Tim Brackeen's brother, stood before Fenner and the packed courtroom.
"He was in every way an honorable man," he said "Many people will speak of closure after this day. It has been said to me many times as this day approached, but I do not anticipate any closure."
Brackeen also spoke of the loss both families will have from the sentence of life without parole.
Not only have the Brackeens' lost a father, son, brother and husband, Fenner's three children will not have a father in their lives.
"We don't expect them to forgive Irving for what happened. We understand their anger. They are entitled to that anger. But what we do think has happened is their hearts have softened, and they have finally given into merciful justice," Jayne said. "He will spend the rest of his life in prison. That is a heavy, heavy sentence he has to be bear for what happened in just a few seconds that happened in 2016."
Fenner, with a handful of people sitting behind him, sat and listened as people described their feelings toward him and the actions that led to this day.
In the end, he chose not to speak on his behalf.
Joyce Orlando can be reached at 704-669-3341 or find her on Twitter @Star_J_Orlando.
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