District attorney’s ties to Charlotte law firm raise questions

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray said he no longer plans to recuse himself from cases involving his former law office because enough time has passed since he worked there more than four years ago. He also said his re-election last year shows voters trust his judgment and impartiality.
Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray said he no longer plans to recuse himself from cases involving his former law office because enough time has passed since he worked there more than four years ago. He also said his re-election last year shows voters trust his judgment and impartiality. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

When a CMPD officer fatally shot an unarmed man in 2013, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray recused himself from the case, citing the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The officer was represented by attorneys from Goodman, Carr, Laughrun, Levine & Greene, a prominent Charlotte law office where Murray worked for about a decade.

But faced with similar circumstances in another police shooting in February, Murray made a different choice.

Even though Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Anthony Holzhauer was represented by the same law firm, Murray did not recuse himself. He ruled this month that Holzhauer was justified when he shot and killed 20-year-old Janisha Fonville in her north Charlotte apartment. The decision meant Holzhauer will not face criminal charges.

Fonville’s family says Murray should have stepped aside because he has connections to a law office frequently hired by police officers suspected of misconduct.

Legal scholars contacted by the Observer said Murray’s ties to his former firm pose the appearance of a conflict of interest and that Murray should have removed himself from the Fonville case.

They questioned why Murray handled it differently than the earlier police shooting. After a CMPD officer killed Jonathan Ferrell in September 2013 in northeast Mecklenburg, Murray asked the N.C. Attorney General’s Office to take over.

At the time, he said he wanted to avoid “even the appearance of impropriety” since the case promised to draw intense public scrutiny.

“The best practice is for an independent agency to make these kind of decisions,” said Charles Monnett III, a Charlotte attorney representing the Ferrell family. “This isn’t about whether Andrew Murray is a good person. It’s about maintaining the public trust.”

The issue reflects concerns raised after high-profile police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., North Charleston and elsewhere. The deaths set off national debate about whether district attorneys can remain impartial enough to hold officers accountable.

A White House task force, formed in response to the deaths, recommended local authorities consider special independent prosecutors to handle cases where police injure or kill civilians.

North Carolina law gives local district attorneys broad discretion to decide when they should recuse themselves. Experts said rules allow them to issue decisions involving their former law firms as long as they have had no previous direct contact with the case while working in private practice.

In interviews, Murray and two partners from his former law office said they did not violate any ethical rules. The law partners said they have not had contact with Murray about any cases. Like other attorneys, the firm deals with assistant district attorneys and their supervisors, they said.

Murray said his relationship with his old firm does not pose an actual conflict of interest. He said the Fonville case was treated differently than the Ferrell shooting because there were different circumstances.

Murray said he no longer plans to recuse himself from cases involving the law office because it has been more than four years since he worked there.

Murray said he believes his re-election last year should eliminate the appearance of a conflict of interest. He said the victory shows voters trust his judgment and impartiality.

“I am no longer associated with my old firm,” he said. “If the (Ferrell) case happened tomorrow, this office would not recuse itself.”

Political ambitions

When Murray was recruited to become a partner at Goodman Carr, he was very clear about his ultimate career goal: He was going to one day run for district attorney.

“It’s a passion of mine,” Murray says now about his drive for public service.

Murray already had four years’ experience as an assistant district attorney in Mecklenburg. He said he left the position for private practice to better support his wife and three children.

He started at Goodman Carr around 2000, handling state and federal criminal cases. Murray worked his way up to managing partner.

When Murray informed his partners he was running for the vacant district attorney’s seat in 2010, attorney George Laughrun said he tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to stay.

Since then, attorneys at Goodman Carr have backed Murray’s political ambitions.

In October 2013, Laughrun and his wife hosted a fundraising dinner at their home for Murray. Laughrun and two other partners, Michael Greene and Rob Heroy, served as chairs. Judy Emken, an attorney for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, and several other well-known Charlotte lawyers acted as hosts, according to an invitation to the event.

Attendees paid as much as $2,500 per couple for dinner and a chance to meet the candidate.

Laughrun said he hosted a similar event in his home for Murray in 2010. He said it is common for defense lawyers to donate money to candidates for district attorney.

He and Greene both said they have supported Murray because he was the most qualified person for the job. Murray, a Republican, beat out Democratic Charlotte City Councilman Michael Barnes in 2010. He ran unopposed in 2014.

“There is no conflict,” Laughrun said. “He makes good decisions. He’s rock solid. He makes ethical decisions.”

Legal scholars agreed elected district attorneys and judges often must raise money from other attorneys to run for office. But they said it only reinforces the need to give special independent prosecutors power to handle fatal police shootings.

Kenneth Williams, a professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston and an expert on police use of force, said he believes it is a conflict of interest for prosecutors to handle police shooting cases involving their former law firms. He said that it is especially inappropriate when those former colleagues have donated money to the district attorney’s campaign.

The situation leaves prosecutors and police officers open to second-guessing and harms public trust in the legal system, Williams said.

“How do you have confidence in the outcome if it appears the deck is stacked?” Williams asked.

Murray recuses

Murray’s ties to his old firm did not become a public issue until Ferrell’s death.

Ferrell was shot Sept. 14, 2013, after he wrecked his car and went to a nearby home, apparently seeking help. The woman inside mistook Ferrell for a burglar, called 911 and reported that an unknown black man was trying to knock down her front door.

When Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick and two other officers arrived, Ferrell immediately ran toward them, police said. Kerrick fired his gun, striking Ferrell 10 times.

The killing sparked protests and became part of the national debate over police shootings involving white officers and unarmed African-Americans.

Kerrick became the first Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer charged with an on-duty shooting in more than 30 years after police Chief Rodney Monroe watched the footage taken by a camera inside a police cruiser parked at the scene. The “dash cam” video remains sealed by court order.

Kerrick, who has pleaded not guilty, shot Ferrell in self-defense, his attorneys say. In a court filing, they said the officer fired his gun after seeing Ferrell charge at him and reach toward his waistband. Kerrick and Ferrell fell to the ground, where Ferrell struck the officer in the face and grabbed his gun near the trigger, the court documents say.

Murray said that at the time of the shooting, he was in Charleston serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. Deputy District Attorney Bart Menser and homicide prosecutor Bill Stetzer went to the scene and relayed information to him by phone.

Greene, the attorney from Goodman Carr, came to the scene to represent Kerrick. He said he sat in while police interviewed Kerrick about what happened.

The day after the shooting, CMPD charged Kerrick with voluntary manslaughter.

Murray said that when he learned that Kerrick was hiring Greene and Laughrun to represent him in the case, he decided to recuse himself. He announced the decision five days after the shooting. It was the only time Murray has recused his office from a police shooting since he was elected.

He said his decision was based at least in part on timing. The shooting happened after similar high-profile incidents across the country involving white police officers and unarmed African-Americans.

“The appearances would not have been great,” Murray said. “I wanted the community to know it was completely impartial.”

Equal treatment?

The family of Janisha Fonville says her case should have been treated the same way.

Fonville had been diagnosed with a mood disorder, depression and had a history of intentionally cutting herself.

On the night of the shooting, Korneisha Banks has said she saw her girlfriend, Fonville, grab a knife and threatened to hurt herself and Banks. Banks has said she met the police outside the couple’s home and told them Fonville needed mental health treatment. She said she wanted the officers to take Fonville to a mental health center.

Banks and CMPD Officers Holzhauer and Shon Sheffield walked into the apartment. Banks and police give conflicting accounts about what happened next. Banks said Fonville jumped up from a living room couch with empty hands. CMPD said officers found her holding a 6- to 8-inch knife.

Police say Fonville lunged toward the officers, and Holzhauer opened fire. Banks said Fonville took one step toward her, without threatening officers, before she was shot.

Murray said he went to the police department after the shooting. He listened from a control room as police interviewed witnesses. Greene, who is representing Holzhauer, went to the scene and sat in for the interviews with the officer.

After two months, Murray announced Holzhauer would not face criminal charges.

In a letter to Monroe, the police chief, that was publicly released, Murray wrote that Holzhauer was justified to use deadly force against a knife-wielding suspect.

Investigators found a kitchen knife splintered by a bullet where Janisha Fonville was killed, supporting the officer’s claim that he shot the woman in self-defense as she closed in on him.

Paris Bey, Fonville’s cousin and spokeswoman for the family, criticized the letter, saying Murray was protecting a city police officer.

“This guy used to run a law firm that helps police officers, and now he decides if they get charged?” Bey asked rhetorically.

Murray said he handled the Fonville case differently than the Ferrell shooting because she was armed. Ferrell was unarmed, he said.

He also said that Fonville was killed after he had been elected to a second term in office. Murray said that time lapse creates more distance between him and his old law firm.

Experts differ

David Klinger, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former police officer, said that it is questionable whether Murray should have handled the Fonville case but that Murray is entitled to use discretion.

“It strikes me that he has good judgment,” Klinger said. “In this one, he said, ‘I feel comfortable.’ It’s like they’re saying because a cop didn’t give a ticket to one person, he can’t give a ticket ever again.”

Others disagreed with that assessment.

Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a nationally recognized criminologist, said Murray should have recused himself from the Fonville shooting case, saying Murray’s different handling of the Ferrell and Fonville cases raises questions.

He said it illustrates why local prosecutors should not decide whether charges are brought in officer-involved shootings.

“There is a tension with the partnership between the police and the DA,” Blumstein said. “This suggests a reluctance on the DA to push against the police. It is preferable to have an independent (person). That makes so much more sense. It gets us beyond the issue of self-serving decisions if the situation suggests a lack of neutrality.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027

How police shootings are investigated

When a police shooting occurs, both defense attorneys and prosecutors go to the scene.

The law firm of Goodman, Carr, Laughrun, Levine & Greene has an agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police to represent officers suspected of misconduct.

George Laughrun and Michael Greene, two partners in the firm, said their names are on a list of on-call attorneys who help Fraternal Order of Police members who need legal representation. Laughrun said he has received eight to 10 officer-involved shooting cases since Murray was elected in 2010. Greene said he has handled a similar number of police shootings, possibly more, in that span.

In the moments after a shooting, Greene said officers must answer questions from police investigators. Lawyers are present to ensure their legal rights are protected.

In most cases, officers choose to keep that attorney throughout the case. They can elect to hire someone else.

CMPD homicide detectives investigate Charlotte police shootings.

Prosecutors answer legal questions for detectives. They view witness interviews and they gather information about what happened.

Police choose whether to file charges and make an arrest, but the district attorney has authority to decide if the office will prosecute the suspect.

The district attorney can decline to take a case when he believes charges are unwarranted. Prosecutors also have the power to seek a criminal indictment through a grand jury if police don’t charge and arrest a suspect.

If prosecutors see a potential conflict of interest when a police officer is under investigation, they can ask the state attorney general’s office to assume control of the case. Fred Clasen-Kelly

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