Crime & Courts

Power of video will be tested at CMPD officer’s trial

A few seconds of video to be shown to the public for the first time this week contributed to Randall “Wes” Kerrick’s arrest and indictment.

Now, the brief clip could help to either acquit the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer of the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, or send him to prison.

If convicted of voluntary manslaughter, Kerrick, 29, faces between three and 11 years in prison. Prosecutors say he shot the unarmed 24-year-old Ferrell 10 times on Sept. 14, 2013, during a pre-dawn confrontation in the Bradfield Farms neighborhood, east of Charlotte.

The video taken at the scene by a camera inside a police cruiser is expected to be played in the courtroom in the coming days as Kerrick’s trial opens. For almost two years, and despite numerous requests from Ferrell’s family, state prosecutors have refused to release it. To do so, they said, would have undercut Kerrick’s right to a fair trial.

Since Ferrell’s death, however, videos capturing controversial police shootings and other uses of force have been released in New York, Cleveland, Ohio, Baltimore and North Charleston, S.C. Last week, a district attorney in Cincinnati released graphic footage of a fatal traffic stop that led to a murder indictment against the officer involved.

Against that dramatic backdrop, it’s hard to say how big a role the dashcam video will play in Kerrick’s trial. According to those who have seen it, the standoff with Ferrell lasts about 15 seconds. The shooting appears off camera. Kerrick is never in view.

Retired Senior Deputy Attorney General Jim Coman, the original prosecutor of the case, says the footage was only part of the evidence behind the decision to take the case to a grand jury.

On the other hand, one of the country’s foremost experts in police shootings says videos often have their largest impact when they undermine the police version of events.

Charlotte defense attorney Charles Monnett, who estimates he has watched the dashcam video more than 100 times, says the clip does just that. Because of a court order prohibiting discussion of the video, he declined to elaborate.

“I do not think Kerrick would have ever been charged if it wasn’t for the dashcam video,” says Monnett, who represented Ferrell’s family in a federal lawsuit settled in May for a record $2.25 million. “Without it, I don’t think we would be having the trial.”

It is also possible that the video will prove inconclusive.

“If the state didn’t offer it as evidence, we would,” says Kerrick defense attorney George Laughrun. “It doesn’t show anything we’re afraid of. Its value is that it shows how quickly an innocuous encounter escalates to deadly.”

The video clearly changed the course of the original investigation.

In the early hours after Ferrell’s death, CMPD then-Chief Rodney Monroe described Kerrick’s use of deadly force as “appropriate and just.” Later that day after watching the video, Monroe had Kerrick arrested. He said the footage showed that Ferrell was clearly unarmed and that Kerrick’s decision to open fire was “excessive” and unlawful.

In the days following, Monroe’s top assistants all watched the footage and then discussed it with the department’s rank and file in an attempt to quell anger and confusion over Kerrick’s quick arrest.

In January 2014, the video was among evidence presented to two grand juries. The first chose not to indict Kerrick. The second did, making Kerrick the first CMPD officer to stand trial for an on-duty shooting in decades.

What it shows

The night of the shooting, Ferrell had wrecked his car and was on foot. Prosecutors say he went to a nearby house seeking help, but the woman inside thought he was trying to break in and called 911. CMPD Officers Adam Neal and Thornell Little were dispatched to the call, and Kerrick asked to be added.

While they were on the way, the dispatcher told the officers that a black man in a green shirt was reported to have kicked through the door of the home and then yelled from the yard for the woman to turn off the alarm. The dispatcher then said the man may have left because the outdoor motion light had gone off.

The officers found Ferrell close by, walking on the road to the Bradford Farms neighborhood pool.

While the shooting occurs off camera, the dashcam video captures the rapidly escalating encounter between Ferrell and the three officers, according to multiple interviews with people who have seen it.

It was shot from a camera inside the patrol car of Neal, the last of the three officers to arrive. The microphone on Neal’s uniform provides the audio.

Given that it was shot around 3 a.m., the video is surprisingly clear, sources say. While the descriptions from those who have seen the clip differ in some ways, here is what they agree upon:

Ferrell appears on camera almost as soon as Neal turns onto the pool road. Neal drives to where Kerrick and Little have parked their patrol cars on the right shoulder. Neal pulls off on the left shoulder but remains in his car.

Ferrell, a former college football player, approaches Little and Kerrick, who are off camera. He then notices red targeting laser points on his chest from Little’s Taser. Ferrell pulled up his pants, and his hands are at his sides. He then begins to run between the police cars.

Little fires his stun gun almost simultaneously but misses. Ferrell disappears off camera. The unseen Kerrick can be heard yelling as gunshots ring out. At that point, Neal leaves his car and runs left to right across the screen, toward the ditch where Kerrick and Ferrell both landed.

Kerrick attorneys Laughrun and Michael Greene say the video proves their client acted appropriately because the police officer feared for his safety and that of his colleagues.

In pre-trial motions, prosecutors say neither Kerrick nor Little identified themselves or gave any commands to Ferrell. The victim ran, they say, only because he feared for his life.

Police videos often exonerate officers from allegations that they used excessive force. But the footage from recent police shootings such as those in North Charleston and now Cincinnati have expanded the visual archive accompanying the country’s debate over how police treat African-Americans.

Monnett says the dashcam video similarly will help the Kerrick jury make up its mind.

“People want to believe that what they see is the absolute truth, and most times it is,” Monnett says. “They want to see it for themselves, and they don’t want to rely on someone else’s interpretation.”

Experts such as Bowling Green University criminologist Philip Stinson, a former police officer, say videos have drawbacks because they frequently offer only a tunnel-visioned perspective of the crime scene.

Laughrun agrees, adding: “How many cameras does it take to get a call right in the Super Bowl or World Series?”

As for Monnett’s contention that the dashcam video differs from the police officers’ accounts of the Ferrell shooting, Laughrun says inconsistencies should be expected: “They all had different vantage points. ... They saw different things.”

Yet footage in some shooting cases has allowed courts and investigators to more thoroughly challenge law-enforcement testimony, says Stinson, who has compiled data on the arrests of 11,000 police officers over the past decade for various crimes.

In Baltimore, surveillance video showed that “the cops lied,” he says. “When Michael Slager’s reports (in the North Charleston shooting) didn’t jibe with the video ... oh hell, now we have a problem.”

In those cases, along with Cincinnati’s, police were charged with crimes.

Joe Cheshire, one of North Carolina’s leading defense attorneys, says video clips of officers using excessive force corroborate what minority communities have been alleging for generations.

He says it also has eroded the advantage police traditionally carry into court.

“I think attitudes are getting to a place where they ought to be,” says Cheshire, who also has represented police officers. “Now in places across America, people will actually go into a trial with an open mind.

“Previously their minds were shut. A police officer is involved. A police officer wins. Case closed.”

Seeing is believing

Beginning in about 2000, cameras were installed in police cars around the country in response to a rash of racial-profiling complaints against officers.

Later this year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police will require its officers to wear body cameras. That change came in response to criticism of police force in Charlotte and other cities.

The existence of a video in the Ferrell shooting doesn’t mean Kerrick will be convicted, experts say.

Former state prosecutor Coman, who retired not long after Kerrick’s indictment, says that in excessive force cases, the public “gives the benefit of doubt to the law enforcement officer,” if they believe he acted reasonably.

Adds Stinson: “Juries recognize the incredibly difficult position law enforcement officers are placed in with life and death decisions. Even with videos available, they’ve resulted in acquittals when you think prosecutors had a slam dunk.”

The so-called “objective reasonableness” standard used in courtrooms originated from a Charlotte excessive force case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s. It asks jurors to assess an officer’s conduct on one key factor: Given the same set of circumstances, would reasonable officers react the same way?

The evidence the jury likely will use to answer this and other questions will trickle out over the next month or more, not simply from a 15-second clip.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

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