The intensive coverage of Charlotte’s police-shooting trial became a courtroom debate Wednesday as several prospective jurors expressed fears about being publicly tied to the case.
Three potential jurors, all white, told Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin they are concerned about possibly being identified based on information in news reports and on social media since the voluntary manslaughter trial of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick opened Monday.
A fourth said she was contacted by her mother who noticed a description in media reports that sounded like her. She said she was surprised but not overly concerned.
Ervin released one of the four from serving: a business owner who told the judge that he felt he and his company had been identified by the media, even though neither he nor his company was named.
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The business owner said that if he was picked for a jury that found Kerrick guilty, he could lose his numerous police customers. If the jury found Kerrick not guilty, it could cause the city to riot, he said, and he and his family would be vulnerable.
I’m going to protect myself and the people around me before I worry about what happens in the courtroom.
In the end, he told the judge and attorneys for both sides that he could not fairly weigh the evidence without worrying over the consequences of the verdict.
“Put me on five other trials,” he said. “I’m going to protect myself and the people around me before I worry about what happens in the courtroom.”
Kerrick is accused of the fatal shooting of Jonathan Ferrell on Sept. 14, 2013. Ferrell was black and unarmed. Kerrick, who is white, shot him 10 times during a confrontation in an east Mecklenburg neighborhood.
Similar deaths have set off riots in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, which Charlotte has largely avoided. But race and the threat of civil unrest have hung over the case from the start. Wednesday afternoon it brought jury selection to a halt.
It started after lunchtime when a man in the jury pool told Ervin he wanted to talk about rumors that had begun swirling through the jury room. The judge sent the 11 other pool members out of the room. The man then said that there had been discussion about tweets being sent by the media on what potential jurors were saying in the courtroom.
About a dozen reporters have been covering jury selection, a process that is rarely reported on. Most have been sending frequent social media updates on events in the courtroom, including the back-and-forth between attorneys and potential jurors. Information on people in the jury pool is a public record, including names, gender, race and occupation, but the Observer is among the media outlets that have abided by a request from Ervin to not publish names.
The man told the judge that the media reports made him fear for his safety. Calling himself “a believer in the Second Amendment,” he told the court that he carried a .22-caliber handgun and would use it if necessary.
Later in the afternoon, the issue resurfaced. A woman told Ervin that she hadn’t known that reporters were in the room and that they were tweeting reports. She questioned the level of coverage for people like herself who hadn’t yet been picked to hear the trial.
In response, an exasperated Ervin banned the public from using electronic devices, including phones, in his courtroom. He also said his approval of cameras to film the upcoming trial was now in serious doubt. And he criticized media members for having been given the freedom to cover the trial without meeting their responsibility to do it thoughtfully. He did not cite any examples.
The community has waited almost two years for Kerrick’s trial. In December, Kerrick was cursed and called a racist when he appeared for a pretrial hearing. In May, the city of Charlotte settled a lawsuit over the shooting for $2.25 million. Citing the atmosphere, media coverage and concerns over finding a fair jury, the officer’s attorneys twice asked Ervin to move the trial. The judge has refused.
Three days into jury questioning, 20 people have been interviewed, nine have been excused and none has been seated.