Given a second try, a Mecklenburg County grand jury indicted a police officer Monday in connection with the shooting death last fall of an unarmed Charlotte man.
Just before 4 p.m., the voluntary manslaughter indictment of Police Officer Randall Kerrick became public. The officer was arrested Sept. 14 after he shot Jonathan Ferrell 10 times during a predawn confrontation northeast of Charlotte. If convicted, the 28-year-old could spend between three and 11 years in prison.
As news of the grand jury’s decision reached a SouthPark law office, Ferrell’s mother and brother preached patience, faith and divine inevitability.
“God’s will must be done,” Georgia Ferrell, who was up from her home in Tallahassee, Fla., said. “That’s the first thing that popped into my head. God’s will must be done.”
Kerrick’s arrest and indictment mark the first time in more than 30 years that a Charlotte police officer has been charged in connection with an on-duty shooting.
Kerrick’s attorney, George Laughrun, said Monday evening that he has not seen the indictment and would not comment. He said he had delivered the news to Kerrick and his family but would not give details.
The indictment came after Kerrick’s case made a highly unusual second trip to a grand jury, and only because a judge refused to block it. Last week, a Mecklenburg grand jury declined to indict the officer on voluntary manslaughter and asked that a lesser charge be brought to them to consider.
Veteran prosecutors and defense attorneys say a grand jury refusing to indict is extremely rare. For example, the jurors who didn’t indict Kerrick issued “true bills” on all the 276 other cases they heard that day.
In response, Attorney General Roy Cooper announced last week that his prosecutors would resubmit the case to the county’s other sitting grand jury with the same voluntary manslaughter charges.
Kerrick’s defense team went to court Monday morning to block him. They argued that giving prosecutors a second crack at an indictment, coupled with Cooper’s comments about the case and the fact that demonstrators were protesting a block away, compromised their client’s chances at a fair hearing.
“How in the world is that grand jury supposed to go into that courtroom and make a decision when you’ve also got the NAACP outside?” defense attorney Michael Greene asked Superior Court Judge Bob Bell. “How is Randall Kerrick supposed to get a fair trial and due process?”
After the 30-minute debate, Bell said he found no legal basis to stop prosecutors from taking the case to a new grand jury.
This time, Cooper’s team, led by Senior Deputy Attorney General Jim Coman, sent twice as many witnesses to make the case against Kerrick than had testified before the first grand jury the week before. Two came from the State Bureau of Investigation. Two were CMPD detectives, and colleagues of Kerrick.
Twelve votes are required for an indictment. Last week, only 14 jurors were on hand to consider the Kerrick case, meaning that as few as three jurors could block the indictment. Cooper cited those absences as a factor in bringing the case back for a second time.
An attorney general spokeswoman did not respond to questions on whether the witnesses presented new evidence and whether grand jurors had watched video shot from a police car on the night of the shooting.
Charlotte attorney Charles Monnett, who is handling the Ferrell family’s lawsuit against Kerrick, the police department and the city and county, said lines of communication with the prosecutors have improved in recent days and that there was “a good possibility that the grand jury saw the video.”
Monnett earlier had spoken of what he described “as the tremendous sense of relief that the system is headed now in the right direction, that justice may be reached.”
The indictment sets the stage for a trial on use of force in the city that helped set the national standard for how police are supposed to respond.
The Supreme Court’s landmark 1989 ruling on “objective reasonableness” grew out of a lawsuit on how Charlotte police allegedly mistreated a diabetic black man on West Boulevard five years before.
Police response must be “objectionably reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote. Among the considerations: “the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest.”
Rehnquist also added this: Would another “reasonable officer” react the same way?
The standard was used in jury instructions in the federal case against Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King, and in talk-show debates and online blogs surrounding the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
As with those cases, Ferrell’s death brought national headlines and has taken on clear racial overtones. Ferrell, a former Florida A&M football player, was black; Kerrick is white.
Not a ‘complete victory’
Activist John Barnette, who helped organize a Monday morning rally outside the Government Center calling for Kerrick’s indictment, said the grand jury’s decision is not a “complete victory” because the police officer has not been convicted and Ferrell is still dead.
Barnette also criticized a system that he says took almost five months to respond to Ferrell’s death.
Ferrell moved to Charlotte a year before his death from Tallahassee to be with his fiancee. On the night he died, he gathered with friends to drink at a bar, then gave a co-worker a ride home. Ferrell’s autopsy showed his blood-alcohol level was low enough for him to drive.
But Ferrell wrecked his car on his way out of the Bradfield Farms neighborhood. He kicked his way free, apparently losing his cellphone in the process, then walked more than a quarter of a mile to the nearest home. There, police say, he pounded on the front door.
The woman inside called 911, frantically describing how an unknown black man was trying to break into her home.
Kerrick was one of three officers to respond. As he approached the officers, Ferrell ignored their orders to stop, investigators say. One of the other officers fired his Taser but missed. Police say Ferrell then veered into Kerrick, who, with three years on the force, was the least experienced officer on the scene. Kerrick fired 12 shots from close range. He was the only officer to use his gun.
Charlotte police investigations into officer shootings typically last weeks, even months. But Police Chief Rodney Monroe ordered Kerrick’s arrest that same day, accusing the officer of using excessive force.
Laughrun, a former prosecutor, says the video from the police car shows his client acted appropriately.
Last week, when the first grand jury did not indict, Laughrun was declaring victory for Kerrick. Now he must begin preparing for his trial. Laughrun predicts one won’t be held before the end of the year at the earliest.
The fact that prosecutors needed two tries to get what is normally a routine indictment doesn’t necessarily portend a difficult path to a conviction, veteran Charlotte defense attorney James Wyatt said Monday.
But given the nature of the case and the publicity it has received, Wyatt acknowledged that finding an impartial jury could be a long and intense process.
“It will be a very different kind of case because a police officer is a defendant,” said Wyatt, who is not connected to the case. “Jurors are keenly aware of how dangerous a police officer’s job can be and how decisions have to be made on a split-second basis.
“They will have to decide whether the officer’s actions were appropriate or whether he went beyond the bounds of what a well-trained officer should have done.”
Georgia Ferrell and her son Willie say they plan to attend Kerrick’s trial. A week ago, when the grand jury refused to indict the police officer who shot her son, Ferrell asked supporters in Charlotte to keep fighting.
Now she asked for prayer.
“We are going to keep praying, not just for us, but for everyone involved in this case,” she said as she sat near a desk in Monnett’s office that held dozens of photos of her dead son taken over the course of his life.
Asked if that included Kerrick and his family, her eyes flashed.
“Of course, it does,” she said. Staff writers Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Elisabeth Arriero contributed.