Early in the investigation into four West Ashley men implicated in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Marley Lion, authorities feared for the safety of their informants.

One of the suspects, 33-year-old Julius Perrell Brown, had been charged with murder in the killing of a young mother more than a decade earlier, but the count was dropped when the main witness against him turned up dead.

One of the other suspects had been shot as he planned to testify against a murder defendant in a different case.

Those histories played into Solicitor Scarlett Wilson’s move last year to limit the evidence that the men can view in hopes that they wouldn’t pressure the witnesses.

But this month, it is Brown who fears for his own safety if details of the plea deal he struck with prosecutors get into the public’s hands.

He pleaded guilty Sept. 4 to voluntary manslaughter, attempted armed robbery and obstruction of justice, allowing him to avoid a murder conviction for the second time in his life. Brown had been accused of acting as a lookout for two others who planned to rob Lion on June 16, 2012.

In exchange, he must cooperate with authorities. Whether that includes testifying against the other men remains unknown. Circuit Judge Stephanie McDonald signed a protective order that cited Brown’s safety in sealing the document from public view.

Her order contained the bits of information that are public.

Under the pact, Brown received a deferred sentence. Whether he serves hard time will be determined after he fulfills his obligation to cooperate.

While Wilson refused Wednesday to discuss the development, she spoke generally about what such a sentencing scheme means.

“Defendants will be sentenced after cooperating,” she said, “so the court and the state can evaluate his cooperation and consider it in fashioning a sentence or making a recommendation.”

Brown’s attorney, Rodney Davis of Charleston, similarly declined to address specifics.

“The court (last year) sealed certain documents in this case for good cause,” Davis said. “I believed it was crucial to continue that protection following the guilty plea.”

Like the two other murder suspects in Lion’s killing, Brown remains in jail. While behind bars in October, he was sentenced to 106 days for petty larceny and crack cocaine possession.

Other charges in the case remain pending.

The accused triggerman, Ryan P. Deleston, 32, of Cashew Street, and his alleged accomplice, Bryan Latrell Rivers, 29, of White Oak Drive, face counts of murder and attempted armed robbery. Another man is charged with being an accessory after murder.

Under the judge’s order, attorneys for the three co-defendants and their staff members can view the plea deal. The defendants can read the document, but it cannot be further distributed, the order stated.

Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, who represents Deleston, said the order was reasonable.

“The defense has the opportunity to review (the deal) confidentially,” Pennington said. “It’s the kind of thing we would not provide to our clients anyway.”

Detectives from the Charleston Police Department said Deleston, Rivers and Brown had been conspiring to burglarize Famous Joe’s Bar and Grill at 1662 Savannah Highway when Lion’s sport utility vehicle pulled into the parking lot. Lion had been drinking that evening and stopped there to sleep off the effects.

The three men changed their plans and decided to rob Lion instead, police alleged.

Brown first conducted a surveillance sweep; police said a video captured him walking near the SUV. His role, they said, was to find out how many people were inside and to look out for pedestrians as Deleston and Rivers carried out the robbery.

Deleston was peering into the SUV when an alarm sounded, police said. He retreated at first, then returned and fired a handgun several times, they said.

After the shooting, the perpetrators returned to an Ardmore home, where Rivers said Deleston “shot that white boy for nothing,” according to the police.

George Ellis Brown, 28, of Corral Drive, heard the remark, according to court documents, but he didn’t tell police. He hesitated to speak out because his cooperation with authorities in the past nearly got him killed, his father later explained.

George Brown had drafted a written account about seeing the Halloween 2008 shooting death of 24-year-old Shawn Michael Porter in West Ashley. But two weeks before Porter’s alleged killer, Antwaun Breyon Henderson, was set to be tried for murder, George Brown was shot outside his home.

He recovered, then refused to testify against Henderson, who was later acquitted.

Julius Brown, whose relationship to George Brown is unclear, also has skirted a murder rap.

He was accused of being one of three men who burglarized a West Ashley home in October 2000 and fatally shot a 23-year-old mother, Atiyaa Manley.

A member of the trio later came forward and asked to testify about Brown’s alleged involvement in the deadly home invasion. But in March 2005, the witness, 20-year-old Terrell Taylor, was fatally shot outside his home in West Ashley’s Ardmore community, the same neighborhood where Lion was slain seven years later.

Julius Brown was never implicated in that killing.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.