Should city help defend Kerrick?

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer Randall Kerrick faced a civil lawsuit stemming from his 2013 shooting of unarmed Jonathan Ferrell, the city of Charlotte paid for his defense as it does other officers who are sued for performing their public duties.

But Kerrick’s case is different in a critical way – he has been arrested and charged with voluntary manslaughter for the northwest Charlotte shooting. And so, after paying $21,000 in Kerrick’s legal costs, City Manager Ron Carlee decided this month to stop.

It was a decision Carlee did not make alone. Charlotte City Council members met in closed session this month to discuss paying for Ferrell’s civil defense, as well as the civil defense of former mayor Patrick Cannon in a taxicab owner’s lawsuit against him. The council, in a straw poll, recommended not to pay for either, sources told the editorial board. Council members were split on paying for the Kerrick defense, less so on Cannon.

The Kerrick case is delicate, to be sure, given that it involves a white police officer and black shooting victim. Regardless of the racial backdrop, however, it’s reasonable to question why the city should pay for the defense of a person its police chief, Rodney Monroe, saw fit to arrest.

Carlee, for his part, issued a statement to the Observer that cited a 1977 City Council policy and said the city would not defend a lawsuit “against an employee who willfully acted in a manner as to constitute a criminal act.” The policy also gives Carlee the right to make that call.

The question, for Carlee and council members, is who should decide what’s ultimately criminal? By making that decision before a jury or judge did, Carlee is declaring that Kerrick is guilty until proven innocent. That troubled both Democrats and Republicans on the council, as it does this board.

The Cannon case is less uncomfortable. Because the former mayor decided to plead guilty to corruption charges, he is unlikely to face trial on the issues involved in the taxi lawsuit. That left the call more firmly with the city manager and council, which felt that Cannon forfeited his right to paid legal fees when he admitted to committing related felonies.

If Kerrick is acquitted, the city will “then provide a defense” in the civil case, Carlee said. That’s probably only slightly comforting to Kerrick. Although the city persuaded a judge to put the civil trial on hold, Kerrick still faces a growing financial burden that could compromise his defense.

There seemed to be little precedent either way for the city’s decision. The only similar case city officials could recall involved CMPD officer Marcus Jackson, who pled guilty in 2010 to sexually assaulting six women while on duty. The city didn’t pay for Jackson’s civil defense, but he apparently did not ask Charlotte to do so before he pled guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Kerrick’s case, of course, is different. While the police chief’s statements about the shooting are certainly damning, the case involves a split-second decision that will be the topic of much courtroom debate.

Meanwhile, Kerrick can appeal Carlee’s decision before the council. If he does, we hope the council will weigh carefully the precedent it might be setting in deciding what’s constitutes a crime before a court has a chance to.