Public defenders to gather in Charlotte park to decry racial bias in justice system

Public defenders from around the state will gather in Charlotte on Friday to voice public concerns about racial inequalities plaguing the criminal justice system in North Carolina and beyond.

At noon, the attorneys will congregate at the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in Marshall Park to lament the courts’ “disparate impact on people of color.”

Mecklenburg Chief Public Defender Kevin Tully, who will be among those on hand, said Thursday that the planned statement had made some police officials and lawyers nervous “because they hear me calling them racists.”

That’s not the case, he said.

Public defenders have the same responsibility to acknowledge that a disproportionate number of African-Americans become criminal defendants, and they also must work with other groups to improve the system, Tully said.

The catalyst for the King holiday weekend event: the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police, including one in Charlotte.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick faces a voluntary manslaughter trial this year over the September 2013 shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell. Kerrick shot the unarmed Ferrell 10 times. The officer’s attorneys say Ferrell’s death was justified.

Subsequent deaths of African-American men outside of St. Louis and in New York led to sometimes-violent protests along with demonstrations in Charlotte and other cities worldwide.

In a statement to be read during the Friday gathering, the attorneys say they “cannot ignore the effects of race at every stage of the criminal justice process” – from arrests to sentencings.

While expressing respect for police, prosecutors and courts, the attorneys say “equity and fairness must be the hallmark of our criminal and juvenile justice system.

“The time is now for us to come together and turn our concerns into meaningful and lasting reform.”