Almost two years after its filming, the dashcam video surrounding the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell finally became public Wednesday at the trial of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer accused of killing him.
The violent meeting of Ferrell with Randall “Wes” Kerrick and two other officers unfolds on screen with astonishing speed. One of the officers involved testified about a harrowing scene he said occurs off-camera – Kerrick and Ferrell entangled on the ground in a ditch with the officer repeatedly firing his .40-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol as Ferrell tried to crawl up his body.
When the shooting stopped, the unarmed Ferrell had been hit 10 times from close range.
The trial resumes Thursday with Officer Adam Neal back on the witness stand with his account of Ferrell’s shooting. More showings of the video are expected in the days ahead, along with expert testimony on Kerrick’s actions and training. It’s not yet known whether Kerrick himself will testify.
Attorneys on both sides of Kerrick’s voluntary manslaughter case used multiple showings of the video to try to frame what it reveals. Afterward, those in the audience of Courtroom 5370 offered widely different accounts of what they had just seen.
In the end, only 12 opinions matter – the jurors who will judge Kerrick’s guilt or innocence. If convicted, the 29-year-old faces between three and 11 years in prison.
By now, the facts of the case have become familiar. On Sept. 14, 2013, Ferrell wrecked his car in an east Mecklenburg neighborhood after giving a co-worker a late-night ride home. He went to the nearby home of Sarah McCartney and pounded on the door. Prosecutors say Ferrell went for help.
McCartney testified Monday that Ferrell appeared to be trying to kick her door down. Kerrick, Neal and Officer Thornell Little responded to her 911 call. Ferrell died in a ditch about a football field away from the home.
Prosecutors from the attorney general’s office say Kerrick overreacted in opening fire on a clearly unarmed man. The defense team counters that Kerrick acted reasonably after Ferrell charged him.
At 2:38 p.m. Wednesday, Charlotte area residents who have been debating the case for months at last had a chance to see for themselves the events leading up to Ferrell’s death.
The video was shot by a camera on the dashboard of Neal’s patrol car. It starts when Neal begins racing from North Sharon Amity Road toward the Bradfield Farms neighborhood, 15 miles east of Charlotte.
At just under 10 minutes into the video, Kerrick’s police cruiser comes into view, parked in front of McCartney’s home. Neal and his camera follow as Kerrick speeds down a narrow road leading to the neighborhood pool. Ferrell appears in the distance, a bright green shirt illuminated by the approaching headlights.
Little, who had arrived moments before, stops in the center of the road near a speed bump. Kerrick pulls in about 18 feet behind him. As Neal pulls off the left side of the road, Ferrell almost casually walks up to the officers.
Two red Taser targeting lasers appear on Ferrell’s chest. He starts to run just as Little fires his Taser and misses. Ferrell then disappears off camera and between the parked police cars. According to earlier testimony, the unseen Kerrick has pulled his gun and was standing at the back left fender of his patrol car.
A microphone in Neal’s pocket captures the sounds of the last frantic seconds. Kerrick’s voice can be heard yelling “Get on the ground” three times. There’s an audible thump after the first command that sounds like a door slamming. About 3 seconds pass from the first command to the first shots. The gunshots then come rapid fire. After they stop, Kerrick shouts, “Don’t move. Don’t move.”
Neal was watching from the witness stand as the video played. He told the jury that as he drove down the pool road, Ferrell had appeared erratic, panting and pacing back and forth and side to side.
Lead prosecutor Adren Harris replayed the video. “Stop me when you see the actual pacing,” he told Neal.
The police officer watched the footage, then acknowledged that Ferrell had not been pacing and instead walked directly up to the officers. Neal said Ferrell began running after the Taser sighting laser appeared on his chest. He told the jury that Ferrell “charged in the direction” of Little and Kerrick.
Neal said he got out of his car to chase Ferrell, and Neal appears in the video scrambling around the front of his cruiser.
“You never removed your revolver, did you?” Harris asked.
“No sir,” Neal said.
The prosecutor continued.
Where was your Taser?
“In my holster,” Neal said.
Where was your baton?
“In my pocket,” the officer said.
Neal said he never drew any of his weapons to use against Ferrell, even though he expected a struggle. “Once (Ferrell) ran through the Taser, I’m thinking ‘fight’ rather than pulling anything out,” Neal said.
The officer said he heard the first shots from Kerrick’s pistol before he could see his fellow officer. He told the jury that Kerrick was on his buttocks in a ditch trying to get to his feet. Ferrell, he said, was draped over Kerrick’s lower legs, trying to crawl up the officer’s body. He described Ferrell’s arms and hands as making a swimming motion and said he did not see Ferrell throw any punches.
Kerrick kept shooting until Ferrell stopped moving, Neal said.
Given his chance to question Neal, defense attorney Michael Greene replayed the video and led Neal back through his recollections from the night.
At one point, he put Neal on the ground in front of the jury to reenact what he saw between Kerrick and Ferrell in the ditch.
As they’ve been doing since the trial opened more than two weeks ago, the defense attorneys described Ferrell as ignoring police commands and posing a threat to the officers who responded that night.
Greene asked Neal about two large rocks near the scene of the shooting.
“Somebody could have sat down (on the rocks) and said ‘help,’” Greene said. “Somebody could have sat down said, ‘I’ve been in an accident.’ Did you hear anybody say that?”
“No sir,” Neal replied.
The video brought drama to a trial that had slowed with the introduction of almost 200 pieces of prosecution evidence. After watching the video, several audience members were shaking their heads at what they’d seen.
Pam Phillips and Teresa McCormick-Dunlap have been observing the trial since the start of jury selection. Both said the video showed different things.
Phillips, who is white and has been sitting on the Kerrick side of the courtroom, said the video proves Kerrick’s innocence.
“It showed everything I have heard in this courtroom,” she said during a recess. “It showed the officer protecting himself and that neighborhood.”
Ferrell, she said, “clearly charged the officers. What’s an officer to do when someone is charging directly at them?”
McCormick-Dunlap, who is black, has spent the last two weeks watching the trial from behind the prosecution table and close to Ferrell’s family.
She called the video disturbing.
“All I could think about was freezing the last seconds of Jonathan’s life, of turning back the hands of time,” she said. “I expected some kind of confrontation, but it happens so fast that the officers couldn’t have had the time to do all they say they did. It looks like they got out of the car to kill Jonathan.”
Staff writers Hayley Fowler, Langston Taylor and Ames Alexander contributed
Experts say video raises questions about charges
Two experts in police shootings, who watched the dashcam video for the first time Wednesday, said the footage could lead to a not guilty verdict.
Prosecutors say CMPD Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick used excessive force when he shot the unarmed Jonathan Ferrell 10 times.
Based on what they saw in the video, both Kenneth Williams, a law professor from South Texas College of Law in Houston, and Bowling Green University criminologist Philip Stinson say Kerrick’s attorneys can make a strong case that their client acted appropriately, given that Ferrell appears to be running toward two officers.
“If they have reasonable belief that someone is dangerous, they can use deadly force,” Williams said. “They don't have to be right. They just have to be reasonable.”
Stinson, who has compiled a database of 11,000 police arrests for various crimes over the last decade, said the video could help a jury decide Kerrick was justified, particularly since he and the other officers had been told a man matching Ferrell’s description was trying to break into a woman’s house.
Michael Gordon and Steve Harrison