A few weeks after her son was shot to death by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, Georgia Ferrell said he visited her in a dream.
“Jonathan, I’m OK. Are you OK?” she said she asked him.
He told her he was.
Asked whether she carried away a message from the dream, Georgia Ferrell said this: “I know his spirit wants justice, and his spirit wants peace.”
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A year ago Sunday, Jonathan Ferrell wrecked his car on an unfamiliar road. A toxicology report showed no signs drugs, and while he had been drinking he was not drunk. He escaped the car barefoot and without his cellphone. He sought help at a nearby house, but his late-night and urgent knocking frightened the woman inside.
He then ran up to three Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers who had responded to the woman’s 911 call. Moments later, he was dead, and for the first time in at least 30 years, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer was charged with a crime in connection with an on-duty shooting.
On Saturday in Tallahassee, Fla., Ferrell’s family laid flowers at his grave. On Sunday, they will host a public celebration of his life, while offering young African-Americans instruction on how to act around police.
“To be humble, how to protect themselves,” Georgia Ferrell says, “These children are our future, and too many of them are being taken out before their time.”
Ferrell says she hasn’t followed the coverage of the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr., a black teen, by Darren Wilson, a white policeman, in Ferguson, Mo., or the anger that has simmered in the St. Louis suburb for more than a month.
She says she understands the comparison between Brown’s death and her son’s and has sent word through intermediaries that she is praying for Brown’s family.
“Things happen for a reason. Things have to happen for the public to see what’s really going on,” she says.
“Jonathan would not be happy with all the killing of black men. He’d like to see that they’re all being treated equal. Treat him like he was a young white man. What’s so different about the pigment of his skin?
“Find out what’s going on before you pull a gun. We love our children, too.”
Law enforcement ties
Since middle school, Jonathan Ferrell lovedthe same girl.
For most of his adult life, Wes Kerrick dreamed of being a cop.
A year ago, those paths brought the two men – both in their 20s, one black, the other white – face-to-face in a suburban neighborhood outside Charlotte in northeast Mecklenburg.
Within seconds, Ferrell lay dying from 10 bullets that came from Kerrick’s service weapon.
Later that same day, Kerrick, who comes from a law-enforcement family, including a sister who also serves on CMPD, was charged with voluntary manslaughter. He had less than three years experience on the force at the time.
Ferrell, 24, was a former Florida A&M football player who had moved to Charlotte to be with fiancee Caché Heidel, his girlfriend since they were teenagers in Tallahassee, Fla., and now a Charlotte accountant. He had been working two jobs to pay for classes at Johnson C. Smith University, where he hoped to major in chemistry.
Kerrick remains suspended without pay. His criminal trial, which is being prosecuted by the attorney general’s office, is expected to take place next year. For now, a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Ferrell’s mother against Kerrick, the police and local government remains on hold in federal court.
George Laughrun and Michael Greene, Kerrick’s defense team, said neither they nor their client were available for interviews.
In a prepared statement, the lawyers said the past year has been “an extremely emotional and trying time.”
“Officer Kerrick and his family have the utmost confidence in the criminal justice system as evidenced by the many years of service that both he and his family have given to this and other communities in the law enforcement field,” the statement says.
“Officer Kerrick acted in conformity with the rules and procedures of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and with state law. The shooting of Jonathan Ferrell was tragic but justified.”
Government officials have said little about the case from the start.
City Manager Ron Carlee declined to comment last week, though his office did release a statement reiterating the city’s intent to be “as respectful as possible to those impacted by the tragedy.”
CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe and his department also declined interview requests.
Monroe, who ordered Kerrick’s arrest, said early on that his officer used bad judgment and excessive force – even if Ferrell ran into him, as video from a police car at the scene apparently shows. It was clear that Ferrell was unarmed, Monroe said, and Kerrick’s decision to shoot was unlawful.
“Sometimes we have to put up our hands and use our nightstick,” Monroe said. “... It can’t automatically result in use of deadly force.”
Some law enforcement groups and Kerrick supporters throughout the country accused Monroe of a rush to judgment that could put other officers in jeopardy. They say Kerrick’s subsequent indictment, which came after one grand jury declined to bring charges, was politically motivated.
Ferrell’s family and some community leaders around Charlotte, however, say Monroe headed off a worse situation by acting with speed and openness.
While no two cities and situations are the same, they compare police handling of the Ferrell shooting with the details of Brown’s death in Missouri. There, no charges have been filed, and angry and sometimes violent demonstrations raged.
Here, police quickly identified Kerrick, charged him, and took responsibility for Ferrell’s death. After a public outcry, the City Council also toughened citizen oversight of police shootings. Monroe later said he used the incident to schedule training for his officers on recognizing their biases.
The officers, in turn, asked him for more instruction on hand-to-hand confrontations to avoid deadly force.
In the end, the first police response to Ferrell’s death was key, says Charlotte minister Dr. Dwayne Walker. That it followed ongoing CMPD efforts to establish what Walker describes as “a culture of understanding” with the community made it doubly so.
“Chief Monroe put a human face to a human life,” says Walker, pastor of the Little Rock AME Zion Church in Charlotte, who describes Ferrell’s killing as a “murder.”
“Here, the city acknowledged that a life was taken, a wrong was done. There is still rage, outrage that an officer can unload his weapon at an unarmed man. But his police department arrested him. A man’s life had meaning.”
Still no answers
Occurring between the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and Brown in Ferguson, Ferrell’s shooting drew national headlines. It made the cover of Sports Illustrated, and next month is scheduled to be the subject of a special report on ESPN.
Yet, many vital details of the night remain closed to the public – from eyewitness statements to the video shot with a patrol car camera.
Sometime after 2 a.m., Ferrell wrecked his Toyota Camry in the Bradfield Farms community of northwest Mecklenburg after giving a co-worker a ride home.
He kicked his way free of the car, then walked to the nearest home.
Inside, a woman was alone with her young child, her husband at work. The 911 recording captures the frantic mother saying an unknown man had tried to break into her home. Monroe later described Ferrell as “viciously” pounding on the front door.
A police call went out for an attempted home invasion. Three officers, including Kerrick, responded.
According to police reports, Ferrell ran up to the officers and ignored repeated calls to stop and get on the ground. One of the officers fired his Taser but missed. Ferrell then veered directly into Kerrick.
At some point Kerrick started firing – 12 shots in all.
The other officers, both African-American and with more experience than Kerrick, did not pull their guns. Their accounts of the shooting remain sealed.
So does the 20-second dash-cam video, which reportedly captured the moments leading up to the shooting. City officials say Monroe ordered Kerrick’s arrest after he and his top staff watched the footage. A judge has given the attorney general’s office control on when an
d whether it is released.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said Friday that showing the video prematurely could compromise Kerrick’s right to a fair trial.
Citing the role a video played in the domestic-abuse case against NFL player Ray Rice last week, Ferrell family attorney Chris Chestnut again called for the release of the footage.
“Video speaks truth. What’s there to hide?” said Chestnut, who saw the video shortly after the shooting. “The truth is that it’s murder. On camera.”
Chestnut says Kerrick’s behavior, not Ferrell’s, is on trial.
While the events marking Ferrell’s death are 500 miles away, Walker says African-Americans in Charlotte will grieve, too.
“I didn’t know Trayvon Martin, but it hurts, and we felt the pain because if it could happen there, it could happen here,” Walker says.
“Mr. Ferrell may not have been a native son. But he was one of our sons.”
The story was updated on Monday, Sept. 15, to correct an error about the toxicology report following Jonathan Ferrell’s death. Ferrell had been drinking the night before his death, but his blood-alcohol level was at .06, below the limit of being legally drunk.
Staff writer Cleve Wootson Jr. contributed.