A year after the prosecution of former Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Wes Kerrick ended in a mistrial, the case continues to cast a shadow over North Carolina’s gubernatorial race.
On Saturday, about a third of the delegates at the state convention of the Fraternal Order of Police walked out on Attorney General Roy Cooper after the Democrat answered questions about the case. Most were from Charlotte-Mecklenburg, but officers from other parts of the state joined in, officials of the group said.
Later, FOP members voted to endorse Cooper’s gubernatorial opponent, incumbent Pat McCrory, a Charlotte Republican. Four years ago, the group backed his opponent, Democrat Walter Dalton.
The Kerrick case was a significant factor, said Randy Hagler, state president of an organization that has more than 6,000 members statewide. The FOP spent $500,000 on Kerrick’s defense, and members blame Cooper for deciding to prosecute Kerrick on what they feel was insubstantial evidence, and then taking the case to a second Mecklenburg grand jury after the first one refused to indict the police officer for voluntary manslaughter.
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“We just couldn’t endorse a candidate who wouldn’t make a tough decision for political reasons,” said Hagler, a longtime CMPD officer who’s now chief of police for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Kerrick was charged in the 2013 shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed African American. His 2015 jury trial ended in a hung jury. Despite pleas from Ferrell’s family – and a nationwide debate over police treatment of African-Americans – Cooper’s office decided not to retry him. In a settlement with the city, Kerrick left CMPD.
Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Tuesday that the longtime attorney general has law enforcement support.
“This case involved a tragic death,” he said. “When the Mecklenburg District Attorney gave this case to the Attorney General’s office the prosecutors were tasked with applying the law and the facts – that is what they did.”
Kerrick’s former lead prosecutor, retired Senior Deputy Attorney General Jim Coman, called the criticism of his former boss unfair. He said the decisions to charge Kerrick and then not retry him a second time after the mistrial “were based on the facts and evidence at the time.”
He described the FOP walkout as “a stunt.”
“I’m as big a law enforcement supporter as anyone, but it’s this kind of thing that turns people against them. And then they wonder why the public doesn’t support them.”
McCrory spokesman Ricky Diaz said officers deserve support, “not the lip service and politically correct talking points coming out of the attorney general’s office.”
With the anniversary of the mistrial only days away, the weekend walkout by law enforcement officers indicates the wounds from the case are far from healed.
On Sept. 14, 2013, Kerrick shot and killed Ferrell during an early morning confrontation in a suburban neighborhood. Later that day, Kerrick was charged with voluntary manslaughter.
Cooper’s office tried the case at the request of Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray, a former law partner of Kerrick’s defense team. On Aug. 21, 2015, the jury deadlocked 8-4 for acquittal.
Both McCrory, who spoke by Skype, and Cooper, who appeared in person, were asked about the case by the FOP. Both candidates also were questioned about the legal fights over House Bill 2 and voter ID.
Chet Effler, a former Marion police officer and a McDowell County GOP leader, called the Kerrick prosecution “the elephant” in the room, according to a transcript from Cooper’s speech and its aftermath.
“We don’t defend bad officers … we try to represent the officers who are on the line making split-second decisions, and that’s the heart and soul of this entire organization,” Effler said to applause. “Why go back and find a second grand jury to try and find a charge? To us, it does seem politically charged. To us, it seems like you’re going to charge this officer no matter what.”
Cooper acknowledged that the case against Kerrick brought strong and divergent opinions, the transcript says. He said he relied on a team of special prosecutors who had investigated and cleared police officers before “but believed that this case was one that merited going before a grand jury and merited a trial.”
Cooper said that his team took the case to a second grand jury because they were caught off guard that four jurors were absent when the case was presented to the first grand jury.
When Cooper finished discussing the case, some of his audience began to leave. CMPD officer Mark Michalec, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg FOP chapter, was among them. He and Hagler estimated that about 35 delegates, about a third of those on hand, left the room before Cooper finished.
“We thought (the attorney general’s office) owed us an explanation after what they put Wes and his family through, and what he put our department through,” said Michalec, a 22-year CMPD veteran. “He didn’t offer an answer that was good enough. If he didn’t have the correct number in the grand jury room, why proceed?”
Hagler, who was on stage with Cooper, said he wished the delegates “had stayed and been heard. But they have the right to deal with it anyway they choose.”
The subsequent endorsement vote was overwhelming in McCrory’s favor. The members had backed Cooper for attorney general in past.
Charlotte attorney Chuck Monnett, who represented Ferrell’s family in a civil case against police and Kerrick, said the criticism of Cooper is “grossly unfair” and ignores the fact that Kerrick’s top CMPD commanders all recommended that he be charged.
“Ultimately there was a mistrial. But that is not an indication that the charges never should have been brought,” said Monnett, who is hosting a fund-raiser at his home Wednesday for Cooper.
“Would (the FOP) have a different attitude if a member of the community was accused of shooting a police officer? Wouldn’t they want a prosecution to take place even if the evidence was not crystal clear at the beginning?”
Kerrick defense attorney George Laughrun, a critic of the state’s decision to prosecute, credits Cooper for deciding to not retry the case after the mistrial.
“He took a political hit for it,” Laughrun said. “He deserves all the accolades in the world for making a tough decision in a political climate, knowing he was going to end up in the governor’s race.”
Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS