Attorneys for a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer charged in the death of an unarmed man offered a new defense Friday, saying the man told officers “shoot me, shoot me.”
During a court hearing, lawyers representing Randall “Wes” Kerrick said he shot 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell in 2013 after Ferrell smoked marijuana with a friend and attempted to break into a home. When police confronted Ferrell, he ordered them to shoot, the lawyers argued.
The account runs contrary to how CMPD and Ferrell’s family attorney have portrayed the incident. While Kerrick will not stand trial until July, the version of events provides a glimpse into his attorneys’ strategy.
They accused Charlotte police Chief Rodney Monroe of pushing a false account in the media: that Ferrell was shot after he wrecked his car and tried to find help.
“There will be no witness who says Ferrell was trying to get help,” said George Laughrun, an attorney for Kerrick.
Christopher Chestnut, an attorney for the Ferrell family, vehemently denied allegations Ferrell attempted to break into a house while under the influence of illegal drugs. Chestnut accused defense attorneys of trying to destroy Ferrell’s reputation with lies and fabrications.
“Their theory makes no sense,” Chestnut said. “He had no getaway car. He had no shoes on. … What Kerrick did is heinous, so they have got to change the focus.”
About a dozen people protested across the street from the courthouse in Marshall Park before Friday’s hearing. They held signs demanding that authorities release the dash cam recording of the shooting. They later walked to the courtroom and sat through the hearing.
“It’s another smokescreen by Kerrick’s attorneys,” protest organizer John Barnett said after the hearing. “They tried to discredit Jonathan Ferrell.”
Trial stays in Charlotte
Ferrell was killed Sept. 14, 2013, after he wrecked his car and went to a nearby home in northeast Mecklenburg. A woman inside called 911 and reported that an unknown black man was trying to break in by knocking down her front door.
When Kerrick and two other officers arrived, Ferrell immediately ran toward them, police have said. Kerrick fired his gun, striking Ferrell 10 times.
The shooting sparked protests and became part of the national debate over police shootings involving white officers and unarmed African-Americans.
Kerrick, who did not attend Friday’s hearing, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Defense lawyers say that Kerrick shot Ferrell in self-defense. Ferrell charged the officer, and when they both fell to the ground, Kerrick’s lawyers say that Ferrell struck the officer in the face and grabbed his gun near the trigger.
On Friday, attorneys for both sides made technical legal arguments that will set ground rules for the trial.
▪ Judge Robert Ervin rejected a defense motion to move the trial from Mecklenburg County to a neighboring county.
Lawyers for Kerrick said widespread publicity and public comments by Monroe have made it unlikely Kerrick could receive a fair trial.
The judge disagreed, saying that the case has received national attention and that potential jurors in other counties likely have seen the same media reports aired or published in Mecklenburg County.
▪ Defense attorneys have filed motions to dismiss the case, saying law enforcement failed to keep enough blood evidence for the defense to have independent testing performed. They did not argue the issue Friday and said a lab may have more blood available.
▪ Lawyers for Kerrick have filed motions to drop the charge based on “selective prosecution.” On Friday, they sought statewide statistical information on responses from prosecutors when grand juries initially decline to indict a suspect. The judge said he would order the clerk of court to produce data only on Mecklenburg County cases.
In January 2014, a grand jury declined to indict Kerrick for voluntary manslaughter but asked prosecutors instead to submit a lesser charge for them to consider. The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office resubmitted the same charge to a second grand jury, which indicted Kerrick.
Attorneys for Kerrick argued that state law does not grant prosecutors the authority to convene a second grand jury to consider the same charge. Mecklenburg Superior Court Judge Robert Bell disagreed and ruled in favor of the Attorney General’s Office.
‘Ferrell was a great guy’
Ferrell, a former college football player, did not have a criminal record and worked two jobs. He was engaged to be married.
But the most dramatic moments in Friday’s hearing revolved around his behavior the night of the shooting.
Defense attorneys said testimony will show Ferrell was smoking marijuana with a friend before wrecking his car. They have argued that one officer on the scene described Ferrell as being in a “zombie state” and possibly “amped up” on something.
Blood tests performed by the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office and another lab showed no evidence of illegal substances but did show Ferrell had been drinking. His alcohol level was within the legal limit for driving.
A lawyer with the Attorney General’s Office said Ferrell may have been fumbling with his cellphone moments before the crash. A friend was calling to thank him for a good deed, Steve Arbogast said.
Chestnut, the attorney for the Ferrell family, said the turn of events is disheartening. “We did not expect they would put Jonathan on trial,” he said. “Jonathan Ferrell was a great guy.”