Crime & Courts

One life gone, another unraveled

Cache' Heidel: Life without Jonathan Ferrell

Life without Jonathan Ferrell
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Life without Jonathan Ferrell

When Wes Kerrick goes on trial Monday for killing Jonathan Ferrell, the narrative may sound familiar:

White cop, unarmed black man.

- How Wes Kerrick’s dream took a violent turn

- Jonathan Ferrell was just starting his life in Charlotte

But unlike in other cities, where videos unequivocally show what happened, a dashcam recording of the moments leading up to the fatal encounter in Charlotte has not been made public, and it’s uncertain how clear the video will be.

Jurors will hear different arguments about the way the two young men reacted in stressful situations during the middle of the night – the victim having just wrecked his fiancee’s car, the officer responding to a report of a burglary in progress.

The events of Sept. 14, 2013, unfolded a little after 2:20 a.m. as Ferrell left a co-worker’s house in the Bradfield Farms neighborhood, 17 miles east of uptown Charlotte, and drove down Reedy Creek Road, presumably heading home.

About half a mile away, his car jumped the curb and crashed into a stand of trees. It’s not clear why. The Toyota Camry was so mangled, police said, Ferrell had to climb out through the back window. Police later found his cellphone on the floor of the car.

There are no lights on that stretch of road. Ferrell was barefoot. He walked back in the direction he had driven until he reached a house about 350 yards away.

He knocked loudly on the front door. Startled awake, a young mother assumed her husband had returned from his night shift without his key. When she opened the door to a stranger, she was terrified. She slammed it shut, called 911 and activated her home alarm.

“I need help,” she pleaded. “There’s a guy breaking into my front door…. He’s trying to kick it down.”

A 20-second police video has been kept secret by prosecutors. Attorneys who viewed the footage give different interpretations of what it shows.

Three officers raced to the scene. Randall “Wes” Kerrick arrived first. Of the three, he had the least experience, with two years on the force. He had drawn his gun during other incidents, but never fired it.

As Kerrick walked toward the woman’s front door, his defense attorneys say, he heard yelling coming from the street behind. Officer Thornell Little pulled up and Kerrick waved him toward the noise, about 100 yards down a road leading to the neighborhood pool. Kerrick followed in his car.

No one will ever know what Ferrell was thinking as the officers drove up. They shined their high-beam spotlights on him, according to prosecutors, and stepped out of their patrol cars. Officer Adam Neal drove up and caught what happened next on his dashcam.

The 20-second recording has been kept secret by prosecutors. Attorneys who viewed the footage give different interpretations of what it shows. Prosecutors said neither officer identified himself or gave any commands to Ferrell. Kerrick’s defense team says Little ordered Ferrell to stop and get on the ground.

Ferrell continued to walk toward them. Prosecutors say he was obviously unarmed. Kerrick’s defense team says it wasn’t clear. Little, who had been with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department 15 years, fired his Taser. He missed.

Ferrell ran, out of view of the dashcam.

Did he see Kerrick standing in his path with a gun drawn? Or could he have been blinded by the bright lights?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s police chief at the time, Rodney Monroe, said Kerrick tried to retreat and at the same time fired his weapon from about 2 feet away. There was physical contact between the two men, Monroe said, but he didn’t know whether it “was actually an assault, or actually a man dying.” Kerrick fired again.

Ten of 12 bullets hit Ferrell. An autopsy showed eight with a similar trajectory, front-to-back and downward.

Did the 5-foot-7, 170-pound officer overreact and use excessive force in the heat of the moment as a bigger man rushed at him? Or was he justified in thinking the man posed a deadly threat to his life and the lives of his fellow officers?

Police-shooting trial starts Monday

▪ Randall “Wes” Kerrick is the first officer in Mecklenburg County to be charged in connection with an on-duty fatal shooting in at least 30 years. The trial comes during a national debate on police use of force. Demonstrations are expected, but so far Charlotte has not had violent protests like those in Ferguson, Mo., or Baltimore.

▪ The charge: Involuntary manslaughter, a felony. A standard sentence would be three to 11 years in prison. The judge could raise or lower the sentence.

▪ Where: Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin will preside over the trial at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. Two change of venue requests from the defense team have been denied.

▪ This week: Screening of potential jurors begins Monday, and seating a full jury is expected to take some time. Ervin also will hear several motions, including whether cameras will be allowed in the courtroom during the trial.

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