Selecting jurors will be the main activity Tuesday in CMPD Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick’s voluntary manslaughter trial.
The 29-year-old Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer faces from three to 11 years in prison in connection with the September 2013 shooting of Jonathan Ferrell. Ferrell, 24, has no criminal convictions and had moved to Charlotte in 2012 to be with his fiancee. He had wrecked his car after taking a friend home and apparently was seeking help. He was shot to death after encountering police who were responding to a 911 call about a possible break-in attempt.
Motions from the media and procedural matters occupied most of the court’s time Monday. The first prospective juror wasn’t questioned until 4:53 p.m.
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Two excused on Monday
Only two prospective jurors were questioned Monday. Both were excused.
The reasons they gave for why they couldn’t serve: Money and bias.
The first prospective juror, a woman who appeared to be white, said her husband is unemployed and her employer won’t pay her during jury duty.
She said she could lose her car and have her electricity turned off if she isn’t working. Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin told prospective jurors to expect the trial to take “a month or slightly more.”
The woman said the length of the trial would be an extraordinary financial hardship, and so she was excused.
The second prospective juror, a woman who appeared to be black, said she was a single mother who would be inconvenienced by the length of the trial. But more importantly, her “opinions were informed and decided” already, she said, based on news coverage of the case.
Ervin and the lawyers asked the second prospective juror about her ability to be impartial. Eventually, Ervin asked if she knew, in advance, what her verdict would be.
She said she did. He excused her.
Be careful what you wear to court
Spectators at Tuesday’s trial should also be aware of a new rule forbidding what Ervin called “any item that essentially tries to take sides.”
Ferrell’s relatives, including his mother Georgia Ferrell and his brother Willie Ferrell, were in the courtroom early Monday afternoon.
After they left, Kerrick’s attorneys told Ervin they objected to the “Justice for Jonathan” lapel pins the Ferrells had been wearing. The pins bore a photo of Ferrell in his college football uniform.
If the Ferrells wore the pins once the trial was underway, and sat in the first row behind the state’s attorneys as they sat Monday, the pins could prejudice the jury, Kerrick’s lawyers said.
Ervin responded by announcing that no courtroom spectator could wear or carry anything that tries to “communicate any message.”
“The court’s perspective is this (courtroom) is not a forum for public speech,” he said.
Access to completed jury questionnaires
Ervin agreed to a request from the Observer and other media to provide public access to completed jury questionnaires.
Lawyers from both sides are using the same jury questionnaire to try to speed up jury selection. Prospective jurors answer questions about their own criminal histories, biographical information and what they’ve read or heard about the case.
The questionnaire asked about prospective jurors’ attitude toward police in two questions – one regarding “what has happened” in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Charleston and elsewhere, and one regarding Charlotte specifically.
The other cities were home to highly public incidents of white police officers fatally shooting black men. Kerrick is white; Ferrell is black.
Observer attorney Jon Buchan said media access to completed questionnaires may be a first for an N.C. court, but precedent calls for openness. Questioning of jurors is a public process, and the questionnaires are an extension of that, courts have ruled.
Despite both sides’ objections, Ervin eventually agreed. He modified the questionnaire to remove questions that might help the media identify a juror and informed the prospective jurors that reporters would have access to their completed questionnaires.
Jurors were free to mark questions “personal” or “private” instead of responding if they wished, Ervin said, although those responses didn’t mean lawyers couldn’t ask them for more information.