A video capturing a controversial police shooting in South Carolina could influence the trial of Charlotte’s own police shooting case this summer, lawyers say.
In July, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick goes before a jury on a voluntary manslaughter charge in connection with the September 2013 killing of Jonathan Ferrell. A civil lawsuit filed by Ferrell’s family is scheduled to start in federal court this fall.
Now, the country – and Kerrick’s jury pool – are seeing a continuous loop of the video that shows Walter Scott, a fleeing black man being shot down by a North Charleston police officer. The officer, Michael Slager, has been fired and is charged with murder.
Kerrick’s attorneys say the shooting of Ferrell was justified. But questions remain on the impact the police shootings in North Charleston, Ferguson, Mo., and other cities will have on potential jurors in the Charlotte officer’s case.
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“The North Charleston video is shocking in terms of the police officer shooting an African-American who is running away and not posing a threat to anyone. Some (Kerrick) jurors may recall that image,” said James Wyatt, a prominent Charlotte defense lawyer not connected to the Kerrick case.
At the very minimum, the videos from North Charleston and the Charlotte shooting, Wyatt said, “are going to open (jurors’) minds to look at all the facts and circumstances and not rely on any presumption in favor of police.”
Charles Monnett, who is representing the Ferrell family in the civil complaint, says juries have traditionally required a higher burden of proof before convicting police of crimes. That may be changing, he said Wednesday.
“This constant, steady stream of people dying at the hands of police officers for minor offenses can’t help but have an impact on public opinion. Maybe it’s changing the world,” Monnett said. “(The public) is becoming more willing to consider that police may, in fact, be using unnecessary force.”
While the two shootings are different in many ways, they share similarities: Both police officers are white; the victims were unarmed black men. Ferrell was shot 10 times; Slager fired eight shots at Scott. In both instances, video played a key role in leading to the arrests.
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. That so-called “dash cam” video remains sealed by court order and in the hands of the attorney general’s office, which will try Kerrick’s case.
In North Charleston, Slager reportedly said he feared for his safety because Scott had stolen the officer’s Taser during a struggle after a traffic stop. A bystander’s video shows the pair briefly grappling, and then the officer firing on the fleeing Scott until he falls to the ground. The video then shows Slager dropping an object next to Scott’s body.
Ferrell family speaks out
As the footage of Scott’s killing spread Wednesday, Ferrell’s mother again called for the release of the video that captures events leading up to the killing of her son.
“Everybody would see how negligent the officer was,” said Georgia Ferrell, who has seen the footage. “We have to make some changes or our officers will get away with what they are doing.”
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, said the video likely will be presented as evidence in the criminal case. Releasing it now could jeopardize Kerrick’s right to a fair trial, she said.
Chris Chestnut, a Florida attorney representing the family, says the video shows officers did not give Ferrell adequate warning and should not have used lethal force. He has described Ferrell’s death as a murder.
On Sept. 15, 2013, Ferrell wrecked his car after giving a co-worker a late-night ride home. Ferrell went to the nearest home, apparently seeking help. The woman inside, who was alone with her infant, told a 911 operator that an unknown black man was trying to knock down her front door.
Kerrick’s attorneys, Michael Greene and George Laughrun, say their client and two other officers responded to a possible home invasion.
In a statement, they disagreed with Georgia Ferrell’s opinion that the video shows negligence because Kerrick doesn’t appear in the footage. They said the video from the Charleston case appears to show a situation “vastly different” from the Ferrell shooting.
The Charlotte video, they said, shows Ferrell disobeying repeated police commands. “He blows past the first officer who has his Taser drawn and then sprints toward Officer Kerrick who gives him repeated commands to ‘get on the ground’ before he begins shooting,” the lawyers said.
At no point on the video or the earlier 911 call “do you hear Ferrell asking for help for being injured or asking for assistance because he was involved in a car accident,” Greene and Laughrun said.
Meanwhile, the fallout from the police shootings continues to influence how police operate around the state. In Charlotte, the city recently ordered 1,425 body cameras for officers to wear. Bills are moving through the state legislature that would put body cameras on about 60 percent of the state’s officers by January 2017.
Kerrick’s trial also has drawn greater attention. During a preliminary court hearing earlier this year, the police officer was heckled inside the courtroom and was called a racist and a killer by a group of protesters who followed him to his car. That environment raised further questions in some legal circles on Kerrick’s ability to get a fair trial in Mecklenburg County.
Laughrun and Greene have until May 8 to file for a so-called “change of venue.” They declined comment Wednesday on whether they’ve made their decision.