Crime & Courts

Charlotte stops paying for defense of CMPD officer in Jonathan Ferrell civil lawsuit

The city of Charlotte quietly has stopped paying Officer Randall Kerrick’s legal costs in the lawsuit filed by the family of a man Kerrick fatally shot last fall.

In doing so, city leaders have backed out of an unusual courtroom dilemma – helping provide a civil lawsuit defense for an officer facing criminal charges filed by the city’s Police Department.

But Kerrick’s supporters say the city’s decision puts a police officer in a potential financial bind when he has not been convicted of a crime.

Kerrick was charged with voluntary manslaughter last fall after he shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed Charlotte man who had wrecked his car in northwest Charlotte. When Ferrell knocked on the front door of a house apparently seeking help, the occupant frantically called 911 to report a home invasion.

Kerrick was one of three officers to respond and the only one to use his gun. The case, involving a white officer and a black suspect, continues to draw national attention.

Kerrick remains on unpaid leave. His criminal trial in the state’s Superior Court isn’t expected until 2015 as attorneys continue to sift through 6,000 pages of evidence.

Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit filed by the dead man’s mother, Georgia Ferrell of Tallahassee, Fla., inches along in federal court. It targets Kerrick, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and Chief Rodney Monroe, as well as city and county governments.

U.S. District Judge Graham Mullen has allowed each side in the suit to question police officers Thornell Little and Adam Neal. Both were at the scene the morning of Sept. 14, 2013, when Kerrick fired 12 shots at Ferrell from close range, hitting him 10 times.

Otherwise, Mullen has granted a city request to put the lawsuit on hold until the criminal case ends.

City policy

Normally, the city helps pay for the defense of police officers who are sued for performing their public duties, as it did last month when it hired a private attorney to represent Officer Michael Forbes during the trial of a lawsuit filed over Forbes’ fatal use of his police Taser in 2011.

The city also paid for Charlotte attorney Bob McDonnell to represent Kerrick during the early stages of the Ferrell lawsuit. (According to a city spokeswoman, the city has spent almost $21,000 on the officer’s legal costs through Aug. 17.)

That changed without public mention this month when City Manager Ron Carlee decided to stop paying for Kerrick’s civil defense.

Asked to discuss the decision, Carlee issued a statement to the Observer, citing a 37-year-old policy.

The City Council decided in 1977 that it would “not defend a lawsuit against an employee who willfully acted in a manner as to constitute a criminal act,” Carlee’s statement said.

“I have decided that it would be inconsistent and untenable for the city to defend Officer Kerrick in the civil lawsuit due to the fact that CMPD charged Officer Kerrick with a crime.”

Under the policy, should the criminal charges be dropped or Kerrick be acquitted by a jury, Carlee said the city “would then provide a defense” against the civil lawsuit.

George Laughrun, Kerrick’s attorney in the criminal case, expressed disappointment Monday in what he described as “the short-sightedness” of the city’s decision.

Kerrick “was an employee at the time this action allegedly happened ... and I think the city should cover his legal expenses (in the lawsuit),” Laughrun said. “I would understand if he had been convicted. But he has not.”

McDonnell said Monday that he remains on the case with Kerrick.

Randy Hagler, state president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he was “troubled” when told about the decision Monday afternoon. The organization already is helping pay for Kerrick’s criminal defense, and Hagler said Kerrick can apply for help with his lawsuit expenses, too.

“You think (the city) would have waited for the criminal trial to see how it turned out, but they have to make their decision and we have to make ours,” Hagler said. “We still support the officer.”

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