On Thursday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick will have his first day in court.
But his short, routine appearance is expected to become a scene in a larger story – the nationwide debate over the use of deadly force by police against unarmed subjects.
Kerrick is accused of voluntary manslaughter in the Sept. 15, 2013, shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell. He was indicted in January, remains suspended by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, and will appear in court on the fifth floor of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse at 2 p.m.
His appearance will begin and end in a matter of seconds. But it set off vigils and marches Wednesday night that were expected to resume Thursday morning in parts of uptown Charlotte.
More and more, the charges against Kerrick are being lumped in with police-related killings this year in Ferguson, Mo., New York City and Cleveland, Ohio. All involved the deaths of African-American men at the hands of white police officers.
That characterization, however, overlooks important distinctions in the Charlotte case. Namely, unlike in the other cities, Charlotte police arrested one of their own.
Kerrick was also indicted. In a significant break from the other investigations, Kerrick did not testify before the grand jury considering charges against him. Grand jury testimony by the officers in Ferguson and New York City generally is cited as being a key factor in the decisions by those panels not to indict.
In North Carolina, prosecutors control the evidence presented to grand juries. Kerrick’s attorneys say they wanted the officer to testify when his case went before Mecklenburg jurors in January. But state prosecutors, led by Senior Deputy Attorney General Jim Coman, blocked them.
Coman, now retired, said at the time he didn’t allow criminal defendants – “regardless of their position” – to testify before grand juries.
Even so, the first grand jury failed to issue an indictment against Kerrick. Prosecutors say they were surprised at the time that the grand jury foreman had allowed four of the 18 jurors to miss the hearing, making it far more difficult to get the 12 votes needed for an indictment.
Against the defense team’s objections, Coman and his assistants took the case before a second grand jury, securing charges against Kerrick one week later.
“Officer Kerrick was and presently remains eager to tell the entire story in a court of law,” said Charlotte attorney Michael Greene. “He was willing to do so with the first grand jury ... and was also willing to do so with the second grand jury who indicted him.”
Had Kerrick been able to testify, he might not be in court today, says Davidson College history professor Daniel Aldridge.
“In my experience, jurors believe police are doing dangerous, necessary work, and they give officers the benefit of the doubt whenever possible,” said Aldridge, a former public defender. “They are experienced witnesses.”
In Ferguson, the grand jury proceedings dragged on for months. Here, Kerrick was arrested less than 24 hours after Ferrell’s death. The quick response by police and the special prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office brought in to handle the case is credited by some as heading off larger community protests. Even so, some ministers and civil rights leaders around town still refer to Ferrell’s death as “murder.”
And while Michael Brown Jr.’s death uncovered deep-rooted animosities between Ferguson residents and the city’s police, a Yale University study earlier this year showed white and black approval of CMPD far higher than comparable ratings across the country.
Still, the linking of Ferrell’s death to Brown’s and Eric Garner’s in New York continues. A recent New York Times’ story on the difficulty of getting grand jury indictments against police officers opened with the Kerrick/Ferrell case. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe is also scheduled to appear Thursday night on the CBS Nightly News to discuss community-police relations in the wake of the controversial shootings.
“There is really a sea change in attitude underway,” said Charlotte attorney Charles Monnett, who is representing the Ferrell family in a federal lawsuit against Kerrick and police scheduled for trial in November. “If you keep up with the number of people shot and killed by police in this country, it’s enormous.”
Recently, hundreds of Charlotteans – both black and white – gathered in separate churches to reflect on the shootings here and elsewhere.
“It’s 11 hours to Ferguson, but I can get on the light rail and come to Kerrick’s trial,” said activist John Barnett. “A lot of people can’t connect with Ferguson, but they can connect with what’s happening right here in Charlotte – right here in our backyard.”
Kerrick’s attorneys, George Laughrun and Greene, say their client is innocent and that the officer was following CMPD guidelines when he shot the unarmed Ferrell 10 times in 2013.
Almost a year ago, when asking a judge to block state prosecutors from seeking an indictment against Kerrick after prosecutors failed the first time, the attorneys raised concerns that the public demonstrations are compromising Kerrick’s rights.
“How is Randall Kerrick supposed to get a fair trial and due process?” Greene, who is black, asked the judge.
Asked this week if he continued to harbor concerns over the national exposure the Kerrick case was drawing, Laughrun declined to comment. He also declined to say whether he and Greene were considering asking a judge to move the case out of Mecklenburg County.
‘Wider than Charlotte’
The details of the Ferrell and Kerrick case remain hidden under court orders and sealed records and video tapes. What is known goes beyond the simple narrative of black vs. white.
On Sept. 14, 2013, Ferrell, 24, a former Florida A&M football player working two jobs and preparing to enter Johnson C. Smith University, wrecked his car in an unfamiliar neighborhood after taking a co-worker home. He kicked his way free, climbed up an embankment and walked to the nearest home.
It was after 2 a.m. when Ferrell reached the front door. A woman, home alone with her infant child, answered the door to find an unknown man outside. She called 911.
Ferrell apparently pounded on the door hard enough to dislodge the screen of the storm door. While he can be heard on 911 tapes yelling at the frantic woman to turn off her alarm, he never seems to identify himself as a car wreck victim.
Kerrick and two other officers, both African-American, responded to a call for a possible home invasion or burglary. Once in the neighborhood, police say Ferrell approached the officers.
A short piece of video shot from a camera inside a patrol car captured the confrontation. After watching it, Monroe decided to arrest Ferrell and a grand jury chose to indict.
But it has never been shown to the public and remains sealed under a judge’s order at the request of prosecutors.
Critics in the community have pointed out that while a more experienced African-American officer fired his Taser at Ferrell, Kerrick pulled his gun. However, police say that in cases of potentially lethal force, it’s standard for CMPD officers to first use Tasers. But their backups are taught to have their service weapons drawn and ready.
Kerrick fired 12 shots, striking Ferrell with 10. In announcing the officer’s arrest, Monroe said Kerrick had used excessive force against an unarmed man.
Despite the differences in all the shooting cases, Monnett says Ferrell’s death should be part of the ongoing debate over police response.
“I think our case has taken on more of a national perception,” he said. “This issue is apparently wider than Charlotte.”