Crime & Courts

Judge orders police shooting lawsuit to continue, but slowly

A federal judge ruled Thursday that a lawsuit tied to last year’s fatal shooting of an unarmed Charlotte man can continue, though the court blocked any questioning of the police officer charged with the killing.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick faces a voluntary manslaughter charge in connection with the September shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell. Kerrick’s attorneys have called the shooting “tragic but justified.”

The suspended patrolman is also among the targets of a federal wrongful death complaint filed by Ferrell’s family. Police and the city of Charlotte have also been named as defendants.

The defendants’ attorneys had asked U.S. District Judge Graham Mullen to put the civil case on hold until the criminal charge against the policeman are settled. Kerrick’s manslaughter trial might not start until next year, and his criminal defense team already has begun sifting through more than 5,000 pages of evidence gathered in the case.

The Ferrell family, who filed the suit in February, wanted the court to allow the lawsuit to go on, in part so they could do their own investigation into the death.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” attorney Charles Monnett told Mullen on Tuesday.

The family and its lawyers have complained for months that they’ve been cut off from the evidence already gathered by police, evidence that Monnett and Florida attorney Chris Chestnut say is essential to building their civil case.

Mullen offered a compromise.

Monnett can interview the two other police officers on hand the night that Kerrick shot Ferrell nine times. But the judge put Kerrick off limits until the criminal case against him is closed.

Mullen also ordered a 60-day waiting period before the city turns over its files from the Kerrick investigation. That will give attorneys time to figure out how to share evidence while managing the complexities of separate court actions that could influence each other.

Kerrick’s criminal attorney, George Laughrun, referenced the potential pitfalls of the concurrent cases in his response Tuesday to Mullen’s order. The Charlotte defense attorney said he wants a jury for the manslaughter trial not tainted by “some individual with an agenda releasing evidence to the public to further their own interests.”

For their part, Monnett and Florida attorney Chris Chestnut said a delay in the civil lawsuit would leave only one side with access to the findings of the criminal investigation.

Kerrick faces his own predicament. In both the civil and criminal cases, the police officer has Fifth Amendment protection from incriminating himself. But in a civil case, the jury can hold his refusal to testify against him. If he agreed to pretrial questioning in either case, it could be used against him in the other.

Mullen’s order solved that problem for now. Otherwise neither side got everything it wanted. While Monnett can interview the only eye witnesses to the killing, he would do so now without the benefit of knowing what’s in the criminal file.

The city got some added space between the two cases but not nearly as much as it wanted.

Still, police attorney Mark Newbold called Mullen’s ruling a fair one.

Monnett felt similarly.

“I think the court reached an appropriate balance of all the competing interests,” he said. “Obviously we would have liked more. I’m sure they would have liked to have given us less.”