Crime & Courts

Attorney general won’t retry Kerrick in police shooting case

Randall “Wes” Kerrick and his wife Carrie leave the courtroom after Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin declared a mistrial.
Randall “Wes” Kerrick and his wife Carrie leave the courtroom after Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin declared a mistrial. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Prosecutors with the N.C. Attorney General’s Office announced Friday that they won’t retry Randall “Wes” Kerrick in the 2013 shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell because they don’t think a second trial would yield a different result.

At a news conference in Raleigh, Attorney General Roy Cooper acknowledged the frustration of Ferrell’s family and supporters – as well as that of prosecutors – at the failure to convict Kerrick. But he vowed to push for “more consistent training” for law enforcement officers on the use of deadly force.

“Officers must be held accountable when they do not follow their training,” Cooper said. “Lethal force should be the last option, and training needs to reinforce that.”

Kerrick, 29, was charged in Ferrell’s death during a pre-dawn encounter east of Charlotte. Ferrell, 24, was unarmed. Kerrick shot him 10 times, testifying at the trial earlier this month that he feared for his life. On Aug. 21, Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin declared a mistrial with the jury deadlocked 8-4 to acquit the officer.

Ferrell’s family had wanted the state to put Kerrick on trial again, as did U.S. Rep. Alma Adams of Greensboro and other critics of the shooting.

Ferrell’s mother, Georgia, received a call from two prosecutors Friday morning letting her know the case would not be retried. She said she was told prosecutors wouldn’t be able to find a jury that would convict Kerrick.

“They didn’t try hard enough. It was just another black life. They don’t care, it doesn’t matter,” she told the Observer. “I am going to continue to fight. I am going to work on the foundation, continue work for justice. It’s not the end.”

Cooper said that he understands the Ferrell family has suffered an “incredible tragedy” but that prosecutors “put their heart and soul” into the case and “did their very best” in arguing that Kerrick should be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. “The loss of Jonathan Ferrell’s life is a tragedy,” Cooper said. “It should not have happened.”

After speaking with the jurors, Cooper said prosecutors agreed with the comments of “one juror who said, ‘Even if you put 12 different people in here, there will be a division between guilty and not guilty.’… We have to listen to the jurors.”

Jury foreman Bruce Raffe told the Observer that, of the eight jurors who favored acquitting the police officer, one was black, one Hispanic and six white. Of the four favoring conviction, two were black, one Hispanic and one white. Raffe said he believed Kerrick was not guilty.

The charge against Kerrick will be dismissed, according to a letter Friday to Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray. “While our prosecutors tried to seek a conviction, it appears a majority of the jurors did not believe the criminal conviction was the appropriate verdict,” wrote Robert Montgomery, senior deputy attorney general. “Meeting the standard of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt could not be achieved.”

George Laughrun, one of two attorneys who defended Kerrick, said he was surprised the attorney general’s decision came so quickly. “I think it shows the attorney general wanted to take politics out of the decision,” Laughrun said. Cooper is expected to run for governor in the November 2016 election.

Laughrun said it’s unclear whether Kerrick will remain with CMPD: “We haven’t even gotten that far,” he said. “We’ll see what his options are and what’s best for him and his family.”

Some have suggested those options might include filing a suit against the city. Laughrun said his office would not be involved in any civil litigation should Kerrick decide to file a lawsuit.

Laughrun said Kerrick is “relieved obviously” by the decision not to retry the case. “I think he was a little stunned the decision came so quickly. He didn’t want this hanging over his family’s heads or the heads of the Ferrell family and the city of Charlotte.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police declined to comment. A police spokeswoman said she did not yet have information on Kerrick’s employment status with the department.

Activists are ‘not giving up’

Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte NAACP branch, said she’s concerned prosecutors opted not to retry Kerrick because “one black juror sided with the white jurors.” She called the decision a “rush to judgment” since the mistrial was declared only a week ago.

Mack joined a number of civil rights activists who called for the attorney general’s office to retry Kerrick. Online petitions emerged, including one championed by Ferrell’s brother, Willie Ferrell.

“We’re not giving up,” Mack said. “There’s an African American male who is deceased at the hands of a former white CMPD officer. He was shot 10 times. If that’s not excessive, I don’t know what is.”

Charlotte civil rights activist John Barnett, founder of the True Healing Under God organization, said a retrial would give the Ferrell family and many others in the community “full closure.” He said his group plans to petition the attorney general again, asking the office to reconsider.

Barnett said activists are moving forward with plans to urge six national civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, to bring attention to the Kerrick mistrial and subsequent action by the attorney general’s office. They’re also planning a communitywide march in Charlotte Sept. 14, he said.

The Rev. Dwayne Walker, pastor of Little Rock AME Zion Church, said he was baffled and disheartened. “I just don’t understand how an officer can get away with shooting an unarmed man 10 times. It sends a terrible message. I am sickened by the decision. To me, it was an open-and-shut case. I don’t know what those jurors were looking at.”

Congresswoman Adams said Friday that she was disappointed and expressed hope that the decision would not lead to greater mistrust in the community.

“We must funnel that frustration into positive and productive action that includes serious dialogues about criminal justice reform, greater diversity in jury selection and the underlying prejudices that have an undue influence on our criminal justice system,” she said. “I urge people to come together peacefully to unite and heal our city.”

Mistrial prompted protests

On Aug. 21, within moments of the mistrial being declared, protests erupted. At one point, a crowd of about 100 protesters gathered outside BB&T BallPark, where the Charlotte Knights were playing. The scene became tense, as people inside the ballpark and protesters outside yelled at each other through the fence.

The protests continued last Saturday, and a small group gathered Thursday outside the Blumenthal Center for the Performing Arts to protest.

One juror interviewed this week agreed that it wouldn’t be worth retrying the case. “Unless you have new evidence to present, you are going to come up with the same thing,” said the juror, who agreed to be interviewed only if she wasn’t identified. She is the fourth juror who has spoken publicly about the trial, and the second to decline to disclose her vote.

Moses Wilson, 67, the jury’s only African-American male, told the Observer he voted to convict. Another juror interviewed last weekend would not say how she voted but said: “I feel bad that as a jury we could not come together one way or the other for the families.”

In a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling on Wednesday and Thursday, 59 percent of Democrats said the Kerrick case should be retried, while 77 percent of Republicans said it shouldn’t.

Democrats were more likely than Republicans to be less confident in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department as a result of the Kerrick trial. But 53 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of Democrats said the trial didn’t make a difference in their confidence in the CMPD.

Question about second video

Tony Scheer, a Charlotte defense attorney and former Mecklenburg prosecutor, said the state’s decision was not a surprise. He said it’s rare the prosecution would retry a case with an 8-4 split in favor of acquittal.

“The only time they’re going to retry a hung jury that hung in favor of acquittal … (is) if they look back at the case and feel like there was something they could do differently that would swing it all the way back to a 12-nothing conviction.”

At the news conference, Cooper declined to speculate on whether the state would have retried the case if jurors had split differently – for example, 8-4 in favor of a guilty verdict. If new evidence came forward, he said that could change the decision, but he said he had “no indication” there is new evidence.

He was also asked why the jury wasn’t shown a video of Kerrick’s re-enactment of the shooting the day after it occurred. The Ferrell family’s lawyers, Chris Chestnut of Florida and Chuck Monnett of Charlotte, have both argued the jury should have seen it because the re-enactment contradicts a police dashcam video of the events leading up to the shooting and raises questions about Kerrick’s credibility.

Cooper said: “Our lawyers believed that was not an appropriate strategy for the state’s case.”

He said he’s pleased to see CMPD Chief Kerr Putney begin the process of reassessing officers’ training. Cooper said he’ll push for approval of pending state legislation that would provide funding for “enhanced training in use of lethal force.” Cooper said he’d also like to see improvements in police officers’ work environments – such as higher pay and earlier retirement – to help recruit the best officers.

“It’s important that we continue to work for better training for law enforcement,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to make sure that training is consistent.”

(Note: Story was updated Sept. 2 to correct the charge that was dropped against CMPD Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick.)

Doug Miller, Ames Alexander, Fred Clasen-Kelly and Clayton Hanson contributed.

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