Crime & Courts

The law, race and Michael Greene

Michael Greene reflects on the Randall Kerrick trial

Defense attorney Michael Greene reflects on his work in the manslaughter trial of police officer Randall Kerrick.
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Defense attorney Michael Greene reflects on his work in the manslaughter trial of police officer Randall Kerrick.

A week after the mistrial in Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick’s voluntary manslaughter case, his two lawyers approached the entrance of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.

Only one of them was singled out by a bystander.

“Hey,” the black man asked Michael Greene repeatedly, his voice rising to a shout. “Why did you get that cop off?”

Greene, who is black, says he didn’t reply. Nor did he respond to what co-counsel George Laughrun says was a flood of critical emails sent to their law firm during and after the trial.

Several critics – including at least two jurors – who watched Greene daily during Kerrick’s trial say he and Laughrun went beyond simply defending the officer, who is white and was charged after he shot an unarmed black man 10 times in a late-night encounter.

To justify Kerrick’s actions, the detractors say, the defense team transformed Jonathan Ferrell from an innocent victim who was seeking help after a car wreck into what Theresa McCormick-Dunlap describes as “the big, hulking, angry, scary, black man.”

Her judgment is harshest for Greene.

“I find it nearly unforgivable. He played into what society already sees and feels. I felt ashamed of his position in this case,” says McCormick-Dunlap, a pastor’s wife at a predominantly African-American church in Charlotte who sat through the trial. “My question is: Does he really believe what he says, or did he say it for the sake of the job, to win the case? If he said it only to manipulate the jurors, then I question his integrity.”

Greene, who like Laughrun frequently represents police officers, says he has a constitutional obligation to defend clients as best he can.

You don’t base your decision on if ... they’re black or they’re white or they wear blue. They come to you for help, you help them. I could be wearing a blindfold.

Michael Greene

“You don’t base your decision on if ... they’re black or they’re white or they wear blue,” he adds. “They come to you for help, you help them. I could be wearing a blindfold.”

After two years of sifting through the evidence, Greene says he believes Kerrick acted in self-defense when he fatally shot Ferrell in September 2013, and that the case was unfairly lumped in with the “sexy” nationwide narrative of questionable police shootings of African-Americans.

“I never doubted Wes’ innocence for a second,” Greene says. “What I did start to question was how so many people could have such a negative opinion of a person without having met him ... or have such strong opinions about a case when you don’t know anything about the facts – and that includes judges and lawyers.”

In August, Kerrick’s trial ended with a hung jury. Eight of the 12 panelists wanted to acquit. A week later, prosecutors in the N.C. Attorney General’s Office announced they would not seek a new trial. On Sept. 2, the charges against Kerrick officially were dropped.

Since then, the criticism of Greene has escalated from eye rolls and sighs in the courtroom to highly personal attacks.

Says McCormick-Dunlap: “I question his black experience in America, his ability to connect with it.”

Kevin Winn, a Charlotte minister and another trial regular, says he doesn’t understand why Greene “sought to betray Mr. Ferrell.”

“Throughout history, you have black people like Michael Greene who sit on the opposite side of what we as African-Americans feel is justice,” he says.

Charlotte civil rights activist and trial observer Kass Ottley says she does not mind that a black attorney helped represent a white officer. Yet she singles out Greene, and not Laughrun, for what she describes as a condescending and aloof courtroom manner – from how she believes he talked down to prospective black jurors to the lengths she says he went in vilifying Ferrell.

“I just think he is a black man who does not want to be black,” says Ottley, who, like the others, has never talked to Greene. “It made me question his upbringing, where he grew up, how he lived.”

In recent weeks, Greene says he has received phone calls threatening a black boycott of his practice. Jerry Greene, the lawyer’s brother and an online designer in Atlanta who handles the Web page for Greene and Laughrun’s firm, says the number of inappropriate emails to the office jumped 30 percent during the trial. Laughrun says Michael Greene received the worst of the attacks.

Greene’s defenders – from his family and lifelong friends to several African-American leaders who wanted Kerrick sent to jail – say the attorney had an ethical responsibility to meet.

“You’ve got to defend people on the merits,” says Duke University law professor Jim Coleman, who grew up in Charlotte’s traditional black neighborhood of Brooklyn. “If there’s a defense for a white police officer who shoots an unarmed black man, I don’t think a black lawyer can refuse to defend him because of what people might say.”

Michael Greene is on a short list of lawyers routinely called by the Fraternal Order of Police when officers need legal help.

The Rev. John Barnette, who led protests about Ferrell’s death before and after the trial, believes Greene was picked for Kerrick’s defense team because of his race. That said, he doesn’t agree that Greene was a “sellout” or unfairly hard on Ferrell. The trial ended the way it did, he says, in part because Greene and Laughrun were more effective – and aggressive – than their state counterparts.

“Are you going to be a pit bull or a poodle in the courtroom?” he asks.

Greene is on a short list of lawyers routinely called by the Fraternal Order of Police when officers need legal help. His clients – Greene says they’ve spanned gender and race – have included Anthony Holzhauer, a white police officer who has been cleared of two fatal shootings of African-Americans during his career. Greene represented the officer in the more recent case, the February death of Janisha Fonville, who was shot inside her home.

“She didn’t get shot lying on the couch,” Greene said after his client was exonerated. “She got shot because she dove at the officer (with a knife).”

Likewise, he says, Ferrell’s “erratic” behavior led to his death.

“The evidence is what the evidence is,” he says. “These are the facts of the case. These were Jonathan Ferrell’s actions, not stereotypes about him as a black male.”

The prosecution described Ferrell as being killed after police needlessly escalated what should have been a routine encounter. Prosecutors rejected the description by Kerrick and another officer at the scene that Ferrell was shouting and grunting when police arrived, and they intimated that Ferrell may have been disoriented because of the car wreck.

On the other hand, Greene and law partner Laughrun consistently suggested Ferrell had criminal intent. They referred to him as a burglary suspect and emphasized his use of alcohol and marijuana before he lost control of the car. Owners of the home where Ferrell ostensibly went for help say he pounded on the door so hard he left dents. To this day, Greene still says Ferrell kicked it in.

Greene maintains that he did not present Ferrell in a distorted light. Stereotypes, he also notes, cut both ways.

For two years, he says, Kerrick has been depicted as a “white, racist, execution-style killer of an unarmed black man who was only looking for help. I don’t see anybody writing to correct the way he was portrayed.”

Greene is not finished: The people accusing him of using stereotypes are now stereotyping him based solely on how he tried a case.

“They don’t know anything about me,” he says.

‘The blackest man you know’

Greene was born and raised in Springfield, Ohio, the third of five children for Jerry and Pam Greene. Greene’s father was a veteran who went back to college to become a high school special-education teacher after he was laid off from a mill. His mother, born in Guyana, was a nurse.

“It was a household with a lot of love and a lot of focus,” says Greene’s wife, Anna, a homicide prosecutor for the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office. “They had what was priceless: two parents who loved them and would shake them to an inch of their lives if they messed up.”

Greene’s parents, he says, taught him and his siblings that being black meant “being strong, being educated and presenting yourself well.”

Today, if someone questions whether he’s black enough, he recalls the family definition:I say, ‘I’m one of the blackest people you know, because I’m an Ivy League-educated lawyer who does not have a criminal record and who cares deeply about the impression I make.’ 

All the Greene kids went to college – Penn, Duke and Miami of Ohio. Michael attended Dartmouth and worked several campus jobs to make ends meet. A college classmate says Greene excelled equally in the classroom and among the diverse student body. A 1995 graduation photo of him shaking hands with then-President Bill Clinton hangs on his office wall.

Not long before that photo was taken, Greene was at the wheel of a rented car when he was pulled over on a Vermont interstate for doing 79 in a 65 mph zone. He, Shannon Ali and two other college friends were headed to a Smith College formal. But to the white state trooper who stopped him, Greene says, the Ivy League students were simply four black men on a roadside.

Greene says he reached toward the glove compartment for the car’s registration when Ali, who grew up in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood, grabbed his wrist.

“Don’t nobody move,” Ali said.

By now, Greene says, the trooper was shouting at him to get out of the car and to walk slowly toward him. When Greene stepped out onto the shoulder, he says he noticed the trooper’s hand resting on his holster.

Greene says he inched forward with his hands raised holding his license. The mood lightened.

“You can walk faster than that,” he remembers the trooper telling him.

“No sir, I’m fine with this pace,” Greene replied.

Looking back, Greene says once Ali made him more aware, he made it his own responsibility not to add to the tension, to avoid making what he believes to have been Jonathan Ferrell’s fatal mistake two decades later.

My safety was on me.

Michael Greene, about his own encounter with police as a young man

“My safety was on me,” he says.

Alluding to the lesson from his parents, Greene says he had a choice on what kind of impression to make. Ferrell, he says, pounded and kicked at a stranger’s door at 3 in the morning and charged at police.

“Mike Greene took responsibility,” he says. “And Mike Greene presented himself in a certain way to the community and to law enforcement.”

Ali, now an insurance adjuster outside of New York City, says Greene moved easily through Dartmouth’s varied social scene but not at the expense of his racial identity. Greene, he says, had a tight circle of black friends and actively took part in campus debates over such issues as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and affirmative action.

“He never shied away from any of that,” Ali says. “To question Mike Greene’s blackness? Well, I’m actually taken back.”

Anna Greene says her husband has not walled himself off from anything.

“He absolutely identifies with race, just as he does with every other aspect of his life,” she says. “But he’s not living his life based on one thing or the other. He tries to use all his experiences as a way to guide him.”

She recalls an incident while the two were dating – the Greenes were married in 2008 – when a prominent white businessman approached her in a Charlotte bar and expressed shock and disbelief that her boyfriend, who was in earshot, could be black.

“Michael handled it better than I did,” she says. “He has dealt with it his whole life.”

‘The worst stereotypes’

Coleman, the Duke law professor, says the power of law is its potential to elevate the truth above other concerns, even race. A decade ago, he drew fire from African-American colleagues when he chaired a campus investigation that helped lead to the dismissal of charges against three white lacrosse players accused of raping a black dancer.

“Race is very important in our country,” he says. “But I think that those of us in positions such as lawyers have an obligation to practice in a way that advances all of our interests.”

Greene says he tries not to generalize about people or cases. He reserves judgments about both until he knows the facts.

He believes that racial profiling triggered some of the nation’s recent high-profile police killings of black people. But he says the Kerrick case never fit that blueprint.

“Unfortunately for Wes, this couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Greene says. “We were after Trayvon Martin but before all those other incidents. And it was one after the other, after the other, after the other. Then it became a sexy case of another white police officer shooting an unarmed black man ... with the media, quite frankly, picking up those sentiments.”

Black lives do matter, he says. But the phrase must also be applied to the thousands of cases every year in which black men and boys kill other black men and boys.

“All of these deaths are senseless. The outrage should be equal,” Greene says. “Police can do better. We as citizens have rights. But we also have responsibilities. Nobody wants to talk about the responsibilities.”

Jurors said they did not believe Michael Greene’s portrayal of Jonathan Ferrell as a thug.

Kerrick’s jury was made up of seven whites, three blacks and two Latinos. If the defense team played to racial stereotypes, as Greene’s critics contend, the strategy did not entirely work. A white juror voted to convict Kerrick; a black juror opted for acquittal; the Latinos split.

One woman said none of her fellow jurors “bought the story that (Ferrell) was a thug, or up to no good, or anything like that.” And she said it was improper for Greene and Laughrun to portray Ferrell that way in front of his family.

Moses Wilson, the only black man on the jury, went further. The former constable, who voted to convict Kerrick, told the Observer that while Ferrell made “many mistakes” on the night of his death, Greene and Laughrun crossed a line in how they depicted him.

“They presented the jury with the worst stereotypes of a black man,” he says.

Not on the street

When Greene was a boy, his father liked to take walks through the family’s predominantly white neighborhood, carrying a stick in case an angry dog came too close.

For a time, Jerry Greene Sr. was stopped and questioned by police. Greene says his father would give the officers his name and address, and eventually would be allowed to go on his way. Back at the house, he’d call the police station to complain. In time, his son said, police left his father alone.

“He’d get angry at home but not on the street,” Greene recalls. “He’d tell us, ‘You’re not going to win that battle – when you’ve got a walking stick and somebody has a firearm.’ 

That advice weighs heavy in the wake of Ferrell’s death.

Asked if he could offer any advice to Ferrell that might have changed the course of events, Greene gives a two-part answer.

I would have told him to take a cab or sleep it off at my place.

Michael Greene, about advice he would have given Jonathan Ferrell

If Greene, like Ferrell, were 24 again, “I’d wish that I was one of his true friends that night,” he says. “I would have told him to take a cab or sleep it off at my place.”

If Ferrell had ignored the advice, wrecked his car and “kicked the hell out of a door,” attorney Greene says he would have counseled Ferrell to sit on the roadside instead of approaching police, then make sure they knew he needed help.

If Ferrell had followed those steps, he’d still be alive, Greene says.

If for some reason Ferrell had been arrested, “I would have gladly and zealously defended him,” Greene says, “regardless of his race.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS