A prominent communications expert from Ohio has been hired by the city of Charlotte to help plan media relations during the trial of Randall Kerrick, a police officer accused of manslaughter in the 2013 shooting death of an unarmed black man.
Mark Weaver, founder of Communications Counsel in Columbus, Ohio, will be paid $15,000 to consult on city communications during the trial, which is scheduled to begin July 20. Responsibility for day-to-day press releases and statements while Kerrick is in court will remain with the current media-relations staffs for the city and police, city of Charlotte spokeswoman Sandy D’Elosua said.
Kerrick’s defense team reacted angrily to the announcement, calling it the latest effort by the city to undermine Kerrick’s right to a fair trial.
Attorney George Laughrun said he and co-counsel Michael Greene plan to file motions later Wednesday asking a judge to place a gag order on those connected to the trial and to reconsider Kerrick’s earlier request to move the trial outside the city.
“Doesn’t the city already have people to work with the media?” Laughrun said. “Why do they need a hired gun from out of state with a prosecution background who knows nothing about Charlotte or the evidence to put a pro-city spin on everything that happens?
Weaver told the Observer on Wednesday afternoon that Laughrun’s characterization misses the mark.
“The only parts that are true are that I am from out of town and I was a prosecutor,” he said. “I don’t have a side in the case. My side is the city’s side. They have a job to do – to run the city – and they want their citizens to know that what happens in the courtroom will not be affected by what the city does.”
Weaver, a well-known media spokesman in Ohio politics, once worked with the U.S. Department of Justice handling media briefings for police-brutality cases. He worked with the town of Steubenville, Ohio, during the trial of two high school football players convicted in 2013 of raping a drunk 16-year-old girl.
The attorney also speaks regularly at the UNC School of Government, the N.C. League of Municipalities and other instate groups to train local government administrators and elected officials on such issues as social media and crisis management.
In February, he appeared on a Greensboro panel discussing “Crisis Communication after Ferguson,” a reference to the St. Louis suburb besieged by rioting after the 2014 police shooting of teenager Michael Brown.
City Manager Ron Carlee was in the audience that day and came away thinking Weaver could help City Hall, police and local government in general prepare for the high-profile Kerrick trial.
The officer is accused of the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, a former college football player who had wrecked his car in a northeast Mecklenburg neighborhood on Sept. 14, 2013, after giving a friend a ride home. He was shot 10 times.
Why do they need a hired gun from out of state with a prosecution background who knows nothing about Charlotte or the evidence to put a pro-city spin on everything that happens?
Kerrick attorney George Laughrun
Kerrick was arrested that same day, the first Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer charged with an on-duty shooting in at least 30 years. His attorneys say Ferrell’s death was tragic but justified and that Kerrick will be exonerated at his trial.
The case has since become part of a nationwide debate over police relations with the African-American community. Officer-related shootings have led to prolonged outbreaks of violence in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere.
Up to now, Charlotte has escaped the riots and public protests that have plagued other cities, though Kerrick was taunted as a racist and a murderer inside and outside the courtroom during his initial court appearance.
Carlee said in a statement that Charlotte has spent years building strong relationships between police and residents from all parts of the city. But, he added, “We have consistently found that having the advice of someone who isn’t intimately involved with events have been helpful in providing perspective. Mr. Weaver specializes in this type of communications.”
Weaver has already made several trips to the city to discuss the trial and other upcoming events with police, the city’s communications staff and human relations committee, among other groups. D’Elosua says Weaver discussed possible media strategies and what to expect if the trial draws national coverage. Charlotte is also hosting several soccer matches in July that could draw reporters from around the world.
Weaver will not be coming to Charlotte for the trial, which some courthouse observers predict could last a month or more. D’Elosua says he will be available to the city as needed.
Carlee, who made the decision to hire Weaver, described the arrangement as “prudent planning.” The City Council was briefed on the relationship about a week ago, D’Elosua said.
Weaver said neither he nor anyone with the city will be commenting “on the substance of the trial.”
That’s not the city’s job. Instead, Weaver said, “The city has to let its citizens know that its approach to what’s happening is professional, that the work of the city continues and that the citizens have a right to be heard, no matter their opinions.”
Laughrun, though, said Weaver’s hiring is part of a pattern from the city in which “they have done everything they could to submarine” Kerrick’s case.
That includes the speed in which the officer was charged and the debated release of a police video shot at the shooting scene that the defense and state prosecutors got a court order to block, the attorney said. Carlee and former police Chief Rodney Monroe denied any plans to release the video to the public. It is expected to be shown for the first time during the trial.
Laughrun again criticized the timing of the city’s decision to settle a lawsuit filed by Ferrell’s family over the shooting for a record $2.25 million. At the time, Laughrun described the City Council’s approval of the deal as a rush to judgment that had little to do with the evidence in the case.
He said he is seeking a gag order “so everybody will shut up and we can try the case.”
Elizabeth Leland contributed.