Prosecution and defense paint opposite images of Charlotte shooting victim
By CHRISTINA COOKE
August 19, 2015
Find the original story here.
The prosecution and defense painted very different pictures of police shooting victim Jonathan Ferrell during closing arguments on Tuesday in the voluntary manslaughter trial for the officer who killed him.
Randall “Wes” Kerrick, a white Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer shot and killed Ferrell, an unarmed black man, who wrecked his car in a suburban neighborhood east of Charlotte and went to a stranger’s house seeking help in the early morning hours of 14 September 2013.
A former scholarship football player for Texas A&M University, 24-year-old Ferrell had recently moved from Tallahassee to Charlotte with his fiancee Caché Heidel, who had accepted a job in the Charlotte office of an accounting firm. At the time he was killed, he was working two part-time jobs, at Best Buy and Dillard’s, while trying to figure out his next step.
The North Carolina case spurred public outrage, even before the national attention of Michael Brown and the police killings of other unarmed black men that followed.
Kerrick was arrested and charged about 12 hours after the shooting and has been suspended without pay since.
Because Kerrick does not dispute that he intentionally fired the shots at Ferrell, the jury’s main consideration is whether his use of force was excessive. If convicted, Kerrick faces 11 years in prison. The jury is now deliberating.
On the night of the incident, Ferrell had given a co-worker a ride home after a night out at the Hickory Tavern when he ran his fiancee’s car off the road and into a tree, setting the chain of events in motion that ended in his death. (Blood tests show his blood-alcohol level was 0.06, below the 0.08 legal limit to drive.)
The defense characterized Ferrell that night as aggressive, crazed and irresponsible. He had smoked marijuana at the house of the co-worker he dropped off, pointed out defense attorney George Laughrun. Kicking and banging on the front door, he tried to break into the house of Sarah McCartney, who was home alone with her one-year-old son, Laughrun said. And when the officers arrived at the scene, Ferrell was pacing and patting his thighs before he began to charge at Kerrick, Laughrun said, citing the testimony of Thornell Little, one of the two other officers at the scene.
The defense also zeroed in on DNA evidence, which suggested a close-up physical altercation occurred between Kerrick and Ferrell. According to the CMPD crime lab, Ferrell’s DNA was found on Kerrick’s firearm, uniform and boots, and Kerrick’s DNA was found under Ferrell’s fingernails.
“That sums up where Jonathan Ferrell was,” Laughrun said. “He was within arm’s length.”
“It’s easy to say a person deserves what they got if you can muddy them up,” said prosecuting attorney Adren Harris, countering what he called the defense’s demonization of the deceased.
The prosecution described Ferrell as distraught and disoriented after a car wreck in which he lost his cellphone and had to climb out the vehicle’s back window without shoes on. Ferrell approached the McCartneys’ house simply looking for help, Harris said. “Jonathan knocks on the door. He never makes any threats; he never brandishes any weapons; he never tries to force his way into the home,” Harris said.
Ferrell walked toward the officers when they arrived, Harris said, and when officer Little aimed and tried to fire a Taser at his chest without saying anything first, he began to run toward Kerrick – the only clear path given the position of a ditch and the parked police cars. “He was looking past [Kerrick],” Harris said.
“He wasn’t even thinking about the defendant, because he was running to avoid being shot.”
OTHER METHODS OF RESTRAINT
The prosecution argued that Kerrick, one of three officers who responded to the homeowner’s panicked 911 call, abandoned his training and used excessive force in firing 12 shots at Ferrell from close range.
Ten of the bullets hit Ferrell, killing him almost immediately.
During closing arguments, Harris said Kerrick could have used a number of other tools to restrain Ferrell, including his baton, his flashlight, his pepper spray and his Taser – not to mention the help of the two other police officers on the scene and equipped with the same supplies.
“He had a litany of options – non-deadly options – at his disposal, and he didn’t use them,” Harris said.
“And you know why? Because he panicked. He abandoned his training. He abandoned everything he learned when he fired those shots.”
Neither of the other officers on the scene even unholstered their firearms, the prosecution noted.
Prosecutors also pointed to dashcam video released during the trial to show that officers did not announce themselves or give commands before Little fired the Taser.
Defense attorney Laughrun countered that Kerrick was fully justified in pulling the trigger.
Officer Little had tried to stop Ferrell with a Taser but missed, Laughrun said. And as Ferrell began running toward Kerrick, he ignored the officer’s orders to get on the ground. He argued that Kerrick did not know if Ferrell was armed.
“This case is not about race,” Laughrun said. “This case is about choices. It’s about failing to comply with law enforcement commands. It’s about failure to respond to police presence.”
Prosecutor Teresa Postell rebutted that police can’t just shoot anyone who gets within three feet of them, not knowing if they have a weapon. “That’s excessive force,” she said.
Superior court judge Robert Ervin has overseen the criminal trial, which began on 3 August. Because Kerrick does not dispute that he intentionally fired the shots at Ferrell, the jury’s main consideration is whether his use of force was excessive.
PROPER USE OF FORCE
Much of the testimony has focused on whether Kerrick followed police department use-of-force protocol in pulling and firing his weapon.
Prosecution witness CMPD captain Mike Campagna, who helped write the department’s use-of-force procedures, said because Ferrell did not appear armed, Kerrick should have used a non-lethal method along with what’s called the “use-of-force continuum” to restrain Ferrell. Officer Kip White, a veteran trainer at the city’s police academy (who was actually called by the defense), reinforced the hold-fire message for unarmed suspects. Lethal force is a last resort, especially if there are questions, White said: “If there’s doubt, there’s no doubt [that officers hold fire].”
The defense focused on what they identified as discrepancies in police officer training, pointing to training videos and situations in which officers, including Kerrick, were instructed to use lethal force as backup when other officers pulled Tasers.
Defense witness Dave Cloutier, a use-of-force expert who had studied the case extensively, said he believed Kerrick was justified in pulling his gun and firing it.
Prosecutors countered that Cloutier’s expertise was out-of-date and his knowledge of the case was only partial.
Kerrick took the stand in his own defense on 13 and 14 August. During an emotional testimony full of pauses and tears, he said he thought Ferrell was attempting to wrestle his gun from him.
“The suspect matched the description of a B&E [breaking-and-entering] suspect – late night, early morning hours – and he just ran through a Taser. I thought the Taser had worked, made contact. And I had absolutely no idea if he had a weapon on him or not,” Kerrick testified. “I thought I was going to die, because nothing I would do could stop him.”
When asked if he would have done anything differently, Kerrick responded, “I didn’t feel like I did anything wrong. He was going to assault me. He was going to take my gun from me.”
Charlotte activist Robert Dawkins, who founded SAFE Coalition NC in 2012 to build public trust and accountability in North Carolina law enforcement, said he doesn’t buy the defense’s assertion that the case is not about race.
“It’s all about race,” he said. “The decisions are based on race. If it had been anybody else other than a black person or minority, even if it had escalated, it would not have resulted in somebody being shot 10 times.”
Longtime social justice activist Dr Robbie Akhere, who works with the nonprofit Action NC, said across the city, African Americans are watching the trial closely and talking about it in beauty salons, grocery stores and other public gathering places.
While the black community appreciates many efforts Charlotte leaders have taken toward social justice in recent years – including indicting Kerrick in 2014 and passing a civil liberties resolution in June that establishes city council policies on racial profiling, among other things – African American communities have watched cases of police brutality go unreported and unpunished for years, she said.
“The community is a tinderbox, because there have been a series of these types of cases,” Akhere said. If a guilty verdict is not delivered, “some people will say, ‘OK, the courts have spoken.’ But the people in the streets and the community, they will not accept that, and there will be retribution”.
Dawkins said he hopes the jury convicts Kerrick and that the conviction sets a precedent, that officers are held accountable for inappropriate uses of force.
“I hope this opens up the door for people to see each other outside the lens of implicit bias, that everybody that’s black that’s running toward you isn’t somebody you’ve got to fear,” he said. “And I hope it will bring people together. Policy fixes are important – and Charlotte is making some policy fixes around this – but policy alone won’t change until we can get people to see everybody as human.”