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Grand jury considers Charlotte police shooting case Tuesday

A grand jury will decide Tuesday whether the first criminal case against a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer for an on-duty shooting in more than 30 years will go to trial.

Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick is charged with voluntary manslaughter in the Sept. 14 shooting death of 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell, who was unarmed.

If indicted Tuesday, Kerrick could go before a judge and jury as soon as this year.

If convicted of the felony, he faces between three and 11 years behind bars.

But if seven of the 18 grand jury members don’t find enough evidence to push the case forward, Kerrick could go free.

Kerrick, who turned 28 last week, was arrested about 14 hours after he shot Ferrell 10 times in a brief and violent confrontation on Reedy Creek Road. Ferrell had wrecked his car and apparently was seeking help; Kerrick was responding to a 911 call from a nearby resident frightened by a late-night stranger at her door.

The odds are against Kerrick on Tuesday. Grand juries work behind closed doors and typically consider hundreds of cases. Most lead to indictments.

Kerrick’s defense attorneys and would-be prosecutors will not be allowed to take part. Instead, a team of state and CMPD investigators will briefly summarize the case against the officer, who’s been on unpaid suspension since his arrest.

Those familiar with the proceedings say it’s unlikely the grand jury members will take the time to examine what appears to be pivotal evidence in the still-emerging case: a 15-second video of the scene immediately before Kerrick opened fire; and the accounts of the two other police officers who were standing a few feet away.

The video, shot from a camera inside one of the police cars at the scene, is in the hands of the Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case. Despite calls from Ferrell’s family and various media outlets, the video has not been shown to the public, and the opposing sides in the Kerrick case debate what it reveals.

After watching the video on the day of Ferrell’s death, Police Chief Rodney Monroe and his top commanders decided to file charges against one of their own. CMPD investigations into police shootings normally take weeks. This one took hours, and the speed of Kerrick’s arrest caught many of his fellow officers as well as police groups around the country off guard.

In response to a series of Observer questions last week, a spokeswoman with the attorney general’s office said prosecutors cannot comment on a pending case.

Asked if he expected his client to be indicted, defense attorney George Laughrun said it’s impossible to know what a grand jury will do.

“They are hearing only one side of the story,” he added. “The prosecution runs it. There’s no standard of ‘reasonable doubt’ involved. I guess I should leave it at that.”

The case has drawn national attention. Noting that Kerrick is white and Ferrell was African-American, civil rights groups in Charlotte rallied and called for stiffer charges. An attorney for the Ferrell family, which filed a civil lawsuit against Kerrick and police last week, described the shooting as “cold-blooded murder” by a “rogue cop.”

Laughrun, on the other hand, said the video and other evidence will show that Ferrell’s death, though tragic, was legally justified.

How it happened

While the video remains sealed under a judge’s order, many of the other details of the case have become familiar. Kerrick is a former animal-control officer who had three years of CMPD experience. Ferrell was a former Florida A&M football player who had moved to Charlotte a year earlier to be with his fiancee and raise money to enroll at Johnson C. Smith University. Both Kerrick and Ferrell had siblings who wear badges.

On the night their lives collided, Ferrell had gathered at a Hickory Tavern restaurant with a group of friends. Afterward, he offered a co-worker from Dillard’s department store a ride home to the Bradfield Farm community northeast of Charlotte. Tests show that while Ferrell had been drinking he was not drunk.

But as he left the neighborhood, he ran off the road and wrecked his 1999 Toyota Camry. Unable to open the doors, Ferrell kicked his way free through the rear window, then walked a quarter of a mile to the nearest home. Investigators later found his cellphone in the car.

When he reached the nearby house, police said, he pounded on the door. The woman inside called 911. Kerrick and fellow officers Thornell Little and Adam Neal drove to the neighborhood. Police say that as the three patrolmen got out of their cars, Ferrell ran toward them.

Ferrell’s mother and brother say that since Ferrell comes from a family of law officers, it would have been natural for him to run up to the police for help.

Monroe said the officers ordered the 6-foot, 225-pound Ferrell to stop and get on the ground. When he didn’t, Little fired his taser but missed.

Ferrell continued to run, police said, this time headed at Kerrick, the least experienced officer in the group. The 5-foot-7, 170-pound officer fired 12 times with his Smith&Wesson .40-caliber, semi-automatic pistol. Most of the shots came when the two men were only a few feet apart, police said.

Monroe says the video shows that his officer used excessive force. Ferrell was clearly unarmed, the chief told the Observer a few days after the shooting. He said it didn’t matter whether Ferrell ignored the officers’ commands. “It can’t automatically result in use of deadly force,” Monroe said.

Defense attorney Laughrun interpreted the video in a different way. “You see one of his hands partially behind his back, concealed as he ... continued to advance,” he said a few days after the shooting. “He was given three commands to ‘Get on the ground. Get on the ground.’ He did not. And Officer Kerrick backed up and then felt the need to deploy his service weapon.”

A reasonable reaction or not?

Across the country, the so-called “reasonableness standard” dominates the rules surrounding the use of force.

N.C. law allows the use of lethal force by police “only when it appears reasonably necessary ... to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.” One of the clarifying gauges: Would another “reasonable officer” in the same situation act the same way?

The state’s Basic Law Enforcement Training Manual goes deeper. Its elements of “objective reasonableness” include the capability of a subject’s ability to carry out the threat of deadly force, whether the threat is imminent and whether the subject has indicated by word or deed that he intends to cause harm.

The rules, of course, are open to interpretation. In an ongoing lawsuit over a 2010 police shooting of a Charlotte teenager, two of the state’s best-known experts on lethal force disagree on whether that officer acted appropriately.

In the Kerrick case, the “reasonable officer” standard appears to have a clear application, says Mel Tucker, a former police chief in Hickory and Asheville, and a frequent expert witness at lethal-force trials.

“You had three people there. Only one of them shot,” Tucker said. “Objectively, the other two didn’t see it as a deadly force situation. Or maybe the one officer saw something they didn’t see.”

An indictment, should it come, would kick off lengthy preparations for the trial. Laughrun says the case won’t go before a judge and jury until the fall at the earliest.

The Ferrell family lawsuit could further delay the criminal trial since attorneys in both cases could be interviewing the same witnesses and demanding to see whatever evidence available.

In such cases, it’s common for one of the parties to ask a judge to delay the lawsuit until the criminal case is closed.

Given that the family alleges that Jonathan Ferrell’s civil rights were violated, their complaint could be moved to federal court. That request must be made within 30 days of when the lawsuit was filed.

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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