Crime & Courts

Inside Courtroom 5370: The legal drama begins Monday

Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin
Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin

With opening statements Monday in the trial of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick, the focus in Courtroom 5370 shifts from who will be in the jury box to the opposing teams of lawyers.

Their opening mission: Provide an overview of their cases and what they believe happened on Sept. 14, 2013, when Kerrick shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell. Afterward, the government will call its first witness.

Expect a hard-fought legal battle in a high-profile case. Kerrick’s two defense attorneys and the state’s three prosecutors bring years of expertise to the courtroom – but different styles.

Michael Greene, who will give the opening statement in defense of Kerrick, has a pleasant, business-like manner enlivened by flashes of humor. His partner, George Laughrun, has a more conversational approach but can be good-naturedly ruthless.

Lead prosecutor Adren Harris comes across as more formal and meticulous. He talks so softly that the court reporter repeatedly had to remind him over the past two weeks of jury selection to speak into the microphone.

Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin appears occasionally bemused by the legal wranglings between attorneys. When pondering a contested issue, he furrows his brow, rests his chin in his hand and moves his lips as if he’s working out a Sudoku puzzle.

The jurors will decide whether Kerrick used excessive force when he fired 12 shots at Ferrell, or whether he was justified because he thought Ferrell posed a deadly threat. If convicted of voluntary manslaughter, Kerrick faces three to 11 years in prison.

According to police, Ferrell wrecked his fiancee’s car around 2:20 a.m. and sought help at a nearby house in a neighborhood east of Charlotte. The homeowner, afraid someone was trying to break in, called 911. Kerrick and two other officers responded, and the deadly encounter ensued.

Defense attorney Michael Greene

Greene has been accused of betraying his African-American roots by representing a white police officer charged with killing an unarmed black man. Greene said he replies to critics with a favorite quote from the late civil rights attorney Julius Chambers:

“Don’t you believe in the Constitution?”

Greene, 41, is one of three attorneys at Goodman, Carr, Laughrun, Levine & Greene who represent members of the Fraternal Order of Police. He got the call about Kerrick around 3 a.m. on the night of the shooting.

“Everybody’s made this into a race issue because it’s a sexy subject around the country,” Greene said, referring to how Kerrick is white and Ferrell is black, at a time when national attention is focused on a string of police-related deaths of African-Americans. “It’s not about race. The question in this case is whether or not Wes Kerrick acted appropriately that night. We believe he did.”

An Ohio native, Greene holds a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and a law degree from Wake Forest University. He worked two years as an assistant district attorney in Charlotte before joining the law firm in 2003.

He has represented a range of defendantsaccused of crimes from drunken driving to trafficking drugs to murder. He recently represented CMPD Officer Anthony Holzhauer, who shot and killed a mentally ill woman in February. The district attorney ruled that shooting was justified.

Defense attorney George Laughrun

Laughrun has represented police for 32 years and, in all that time, no officer was charged with excessive use of force resulting in a death – until two years ago when Kerrick was arrested.

“I’ve had officers charged with using excessive force in an arrest, officers fudging overtime, assaults on a female, drunken driving cases,” Laughrun said. “But I’ve never had an officer charged as a result of a death. We thought this was probably a two-lawyer case.”

Like Greene, Laughrun began his legal career as an assistant district attorney before switching to defense in 1982. His clients have included former Carolina Panther Kerry Collins on a DWI charge and former Panther Jon Beason on an assault charge. His specialty is DWI. In 2003, he won more than 70 DWI acquittals – the most of any Charlotte attorney.

Laughrun, 59, graduated from Appalachian State University and got his law degree from Samford University in Alabama. Since entering private practice, he has worked out of the same office across the street from the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, where he is a familiar – if not daily – presence.

“Probably not a day goes by I don’t have something in the courthouse,” he said. “I always tell people in jury selection, our firm handles everything, from adoptions to zoning, A to Z.”

Prosecutors Adren Harris, Teresa Postell and Steven Arbogast

Local prosecutors would normally try a case like this. But Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray asked the N.C. Attorney General’s Office to take over because of a conflict of interest: Murray worked 10 years in the same law firm as both defense attorneys until he was sworn in as district attorney in January 2011.

The Kerrick case is among many high-profile cases that lawyers with the state’s Special Prosecution Section have handled over the years, including the Duke Lacrosse case in 2007 and charges against other police and public officials around North Carolina.

Special Deputy Attorney General Adren Harris will lead a three-person team in Charlotte. Harris, 49, has more than 10 years of courtroom experience, including three with the Attorney General’s Office and four as an assistant district attorney in Smithfield. He also worked seven years in the Office of the Attorney General in Washington, D.C., and two years as a judicial clerk.

Harris has degrees from Ferris State University in Michigan and Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana. Before that, he served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps.

He will be joined by Teresa Postell, an assistant attorney general who previously worked as a prosecutor in Wake and Harnett counties. In addition to extensive experience trying homicides, Postell is recognized as an expert in arson prosecution. She teaches legal classes, including “Preparing and Testifying for Law Enforcement Officers.”

Postell, 47, routinely handles criminal appeals. She is a graduate of Queens University of Charlotte and UNC School of Law.

Steven Arbogast is the third prosecutor. It’s not the first time he’s been involved in a Charlotte case. Arbogast handled the post-conviction appeals involving Henry Louis Wallace, who was sentenced to death in 1997 for the rapes and murders of nine Charlotte women.

Arbogast, 59, earned his undergraduate degree from Miami University in Ohio. Like Harris, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps. In 1982, he was selected to attend law school under the Marine Corps Excess Leave Program. He got his degree from Toledo University College of Law.

A spokeswoman said all three prosecutors declined to be interviewed.

Judge Robert “Bob” Ervin

Ervin often handles cases attracting the public’s interest.

▪ He presided over the legal brouhaha involving control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Ervin ruled that the Federal Aviation Commission has the ultimate say-so.

▪ He dismissed a lawsuit Bruton Smith brought against Cabarrus County over incentives for a dragway that Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. built near Charlotte Motor Speedway.

▪ Two years ago, he presided over a lawsuit against Crescent Resources for failing to install a light at an intersection on N.C. 49 where three people were killed. Last year, he heard Mecklenburg County’s two death penalty cases.

Ervin, 54, is senior resident Superior Court judge in Burke and Caldwell counties. Earlier this month, he began a six-month rotation in Mecklenburg County.

A native of Morganton, Ervin has degrees from Davidson College and Harvard Law School. He has been a Superior Court judge since January 2003. His brother, Jimmy (Sam Ervin IV), is a justice on the N.C. Supreme Court. Their grandfather was the late U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, who investigated the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.

Like his grandfather, Ervin is known for his calm demeanor.

Justina Tate, the Superior Court trial coordinator for Burke and Caldwell counties, said Ervin likes a challenge. The more complex the case, she said, the more he applies his problem-solving skills to ensure a fair outcome.

“Court personnel enjoy working with him,” she said, “because of his fairness for all who enter his courtroom, his compassion, his sense of humor, the ease of conversation, his pleasant demeanor, his professionalism. …”

And one other thing: his love of Post-it notes.

Leland: 704-358-5074

Staff writers Michael Gordon and Haley Fowler contributed.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer