The opening day of Randall “Wes” Kerrick’s voluntary manslaughter trial Monday was dominated by debates over juror questionnaires, cameras in the courtroom, even the lapel pins worn by the victim’s family.
That left seven minutes for what the day had set out to be: interviewing prospective jurors to find 12 who can fairly judge the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer’s guilt or innocence.
Only two potential jurors made it into the courtroom, and both were excused. But they verbalized why some legal observers say finding an impartial jury for the trial will be difficult: hardship from how long the trial is expected to last and preconceived beliefs about Kerrick’s guilt or innocence.
The 29-year-old CMPD officer faces three to 11 years in prison in connection with the September 2013 shooting of Jonathan Ferrell.
Ferrell, 24, had wrecked his car after taking a friend home. Prosecutors say Ferrell went to a house for help. Fearing a break-in, the woman inside called 911. During the brief confrontation that followed, Kerrick shot Ferrell 10 times from close range as the unarmed former college football player ran toward him.
Prosecutors say Kerrick and two other officers on hand didn’t identify themselves or give Ferrell any commands, but defense lawyers say Ferrell ignored police orders.
The list of possible witnesses includes Attorney General Roy Cooper, retired CMPD police Chief Rodney Monroe and current Chief Kerr Putney. Dozens of CMPD personnel are on the witness list.
First, the attorneys must find a jury. The interviews began only minutes before court closed for the day.
The first, a white female, told Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin that serving a month or more would throw her family into economic turmoil. Her husband has not worked for months after breaking his leg, she said, and her employer doesn’t pay her for jury service.
“The only thing I can say for sure is that I wouldn’t lose my home because it’s owned by my parents,” she said.
Juror two, an African-American woman, posed a different challenge. She said she has already made up her mind.
After reading news accounts of the shooting, she said the circumstances surrounding Ferrell’s death are similar to police killings of black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, to name a few.
“Different places. Same thing is happening,” she said.
Questioned by Ervin and state prosecutor Adren Harris on whether she could serve with an open mind, she responded, “No. I know what my verdict will be.”
Juror interviews will resume Tuesday but could take weeks to complete.
For the first time in the state’s legal history, the public will be able to read questionnaires that jurors fill out on their backgrounds, biases and their suitability to serve.
Ervin ordered the questionnaires released at the request of the Observer, WBTV and Time-Warner Cable. Observer attorney Jon Buchan argued that the public has a right to the information, particularly in a trial like this.
While attorneys from both sides opposed the release of the documents, Ervin did not. If he had a choice, the judge said, he would keep them private. Previous rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court compelled him to release them, he added.
The questions speak directly to the climate surrounding police shootings here and around the country. Jurors were asked about the events in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston. They also were asked about the Kerrick case.
For the first time since December, Kerrick was back in the courtroom on Monday. Citing security reasons, authorities have allowed him to use a nonpublic entrance. Outside the courthouse, deputies on Segways toured the grounds. Outside the courtroom, a police dog sniffed the corridor.
When court opened, Kerrick’s family, including wife Carrie, filled the row behind the defense table.
Ferrell’s family stayed about an hour Monday afternoon. When they return, they will not be able to wear the lapel pins they brought to court Monday that bear Jon Ferrell’s likeness.
Defense attorney Michael Greene said the pins might influence jurors.
Ervin agreed. His courtroom, he said, “is not a forum for public speech.”