Politics & Government

Charlotte protests, riots are the backdrop in the murder trial of Rayquan Borum

More than two years after violent protests tore through uptown Charlotte, this question lingers:

Who killed Justin Carr?

Next week, jury selection begins in a first-degree murder trial that could provide a definitive ruling or further fan the existing debate.

On Sept. 21, 2016, Carr was fatally shot while he stood in a crowd of demonstrators confronting police outside the Omni hotel. The 21-year-old Charlotte man, who according to family members was attending his first public protest, was among the hundreds of people drawn to uptown that night after the fatal police shooting the day before of Keith Lamont Scott.

Vivian Carr, left, and her son Justin Carr. Carr was fatally shot during a protest in uptown Charlotte. Observer File Photo

Just after 8:20 p.m., a pop sent the crowd into a panicked stampede from Trade and College streets. A smaller group of bystanders stayed behind and encircled Carr, who lay gravely wounded on the pavement. An autopsy said he died instantly when a bullet entered his head by his left ear.

Police and prosecutors say a surveillance video — obtained by the Observer under a court order — captures the moment of Carr’s death. A small orange flash of light appears in the midst of the crowd. As people flee, prosecutors say the gunman, in a white T-shirt and dark pants, sidesteps through the departing crowd and then dashes off screen.

At 10 a.m. Monday, a few blocks from where Carr died, Rayquan Borum of Charlotte will go on trial, charged with the killing. The 24-year-old has remained jailed since his arrest two days after the shooting.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Borum faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Any verdict must be unanimous.

Rayquan Borum, the man accused of fatally shooting Justin Carr, a bystander, goes on trial Monday charged with the murder of Justin Carr during the violent protests that hit Charlotte in September 2016. Borum is shown during an earlier court hearing where he pleaded not guilty to the charge. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

During preliminary court appearances, prosecutors said Borum has admitted to the shooting. His former attorney, Terry Sherrill of Charlotte, said in court that Borum carried a gun to the demonstrations in uptown on Sept. 21, 2016. Sherrill also said his client pulled the trigger that night but did not fire the shot that killed Carr.

One of Borum’s current attorneys, Darlene Harris, declined to comment this week about the case.

Borum will be prosecuted by assistant district attorneys Desmond McCallum and Glenn Cole. A spokeswoman for the DA office said prosecutors do not comment on a pending case.

A group of activists who say they were standing near Carr when he was shot insist that he was killed, not by Borum, but by a rubber bullet fired from the police line guarding the Omni.

Charlotte Uprising has said that Borum, a convicted felon, has been made a scapegoat to draw attention away from CMPD brutality.

For the last two years, group members have held demonstrations outside the Mecklenburg courthouse and in such surprise locations as Southpark mall. Members interrupted court hearings and hung signs over overpasses proclaiming Borum’s innocence and police guilt.

“Rayquan Borum goes to trial for the CMPD murder of Justin Carr,” according to a post this week on the group’s Facebook page. “He knows he didn’t do it. We know he didn’t do it. If there was a need for court support in Charlotte, it’s NOW.”

Two of the group’s spokespersons, Ash Williams and Jamie Marsicano, told the Observer this week that Carr’s death was a continuation of the two days of violence Charlotte-Mecklenburg police unleashed on demonstrators.

“I would love to hold CMPD accountable for what it has done,” Marsicano said. “But with this trial, my primary hope is for this man to get the freedom that he should have had all along.”

CMPD has long denied firing rubber bullets at the crowd that night. Experts also told the Observer that the damage to Carr’s skull and brain was too extreme to have been caused by anything other than a conventional bullet.

A journalist on the scene that night, Ryan James of the Daily Beast, said the fatal shot came from the crowd, not police.

“There was a loud pop, then panic and confusion ... Standing about 10 yards away, I looked down the barrel of a pistol,” James wrote. “The shooter, a black male, was standing at the intersection of East Trade and South College streets with the weapon still aimed. He turned and ran.”

Charlotte Uprising’s narrative of Carr’s death fits into the backdrop of increasing criticism nationwide of police treatment of African-Americans and other minorities.

Retired longtime Superior Court Judge Richard Boner says the Borum trial, which some legal observers say could last three weeks to a month, may prove to be a referendum on police.

After more than a decade of hearing criminal cases around the state, Boner says he has watched Mecklenburg juries become far more willing to challenge the credibility of police, district attorneys and their expert witnesses than in other counties.

“It all depends on who you get on that jury,” Boner says. “I’m guaranteeing you that one of things (the attorneys) will home in on during the juror questioning is, ‘Have you or anyone in your family ever had an issue with a law enforcement officer?’”

Borum’s case is the county’s highest-profile homicide trial since 2015, when CMPD Officer Randall Kerrick was charged with voluntary manslaughter in connection with the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed African-American motorist who had wrecked his car. The trial ended in a hung jury that. The charges against Kerrick were later dropped.

Charlotte attorney Michael Greene, part of Kerrick’s former defense team, says it will be “vital” for attorneys on both sides of the Borum trial to weed out potential jurors who “already have made up their minds” about police, race or any other factors related to the case.

He recalled that one prospective Kerrick juror told him that she would be fair. But Greene said her Facebook page had a photograph of a police officer with the caption, “Hang them all.”

“Are 12 impartial jurors out there? It’s going to be hard to find them,” Greene said. “Especially once you tell folks that the case is in the news, in the public spotlight. But this is best system we have, and you have to trust it.”

The selection for Borum’s jury is to begin Monday and will continue until 12 members plus alternates have been chosen. It is expected to continue through the end of the week, when uptown is to expected to be filled by thousands of fans gathering for the NBA All-Star Game. As of now, Superior Court Judge Greg Hayes of Hickory does not expect any trial interruptions from the event, a court spokeswoman says.

Keith Scott was killed on Sept. 20, 2016, outside his north Charlotte apartment. Police say Scott was armed at the time and refused to surrender or put down his weapon after being encircled by officers who were there on an unrelated matter.

What followed were two nights of protests and sometimes violent confrontations between police and protesters along the I-85 corridor and then into uptown the next day.

The district attorney’s office later ruled that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer who shot Scott had not broken the law. Scott’s family has since sued police and the city.

Charlotte City Councilman Braxton Winston, who came to political prominence during the demonstration that followed the Scott killing, said the trial won’t undo the wounds suffered by the city in September 2016.

“This will not provide closure,” he said. “This is about the loss of the lives of two young black men ... the lives of Rayquan Borum and Justin Carr.”

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Michael Gordon has been the Observer’s legal affairs writer since 2013. He has been an editor and reporter at the paper since 1992, occasionally writing about schools, religion, politics and sports. He spent two summers as “Bikin Mike,” filing stories as he pedaled across the Carolinas.