While the city of Charlotte announced Thursday that it had settled the lawsuit over the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, the criminal trial against the police officer accused of the killing still looms.
As does this question: Will the $2.25 million the city agreed to pay Ferrell’s family influence the jurors deciding the manslaughter case against Officer Randall Kerrick?
“Even though there is no admission of liability by the city, the common perception will be that that they wouldn’t have paid this amount of money if they haven’t had some responsibility,” said James Wyatt, a prominent Charlotte defense attorney not connected to the case.
Any mention of the agreement likely won’t be admissible during the criminal trial, Wyatt said. But most of Kerrick’s potential jurors almost certainly will know about it going in.
In announcing the settlement, Mayor Dan Clodfelter, an attorney, mostly sidestepped its impact on the criminal proceedings, which could put the city under a national spotlight when the trial begins July 20.
For now, Clodfelter said, the city should be thankful it has avoided the violent reactions to police killings in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and other cities.
“Things could have happened differently,” the mayor said. “Instead the events surrounding the case prompted an open, candid and wide-ranging community dialogue about difficult issues.”
Kerrick’s attorneys, however, attacked the settlement, describing it as the latest evidence of the city’s “rush to judgment,” which started with their client’s arrest for a crime he did not commit.
“True justice in this case will come in the form of an acquittal after twelve impartial jurors are selected, hear evidence, deliberate and decide what we have stated countless times from the onset of this case – that Officer Kerrick’s shooting of Jonathan Ferrell, while tragic, was justified,” attorneys George Laughrun and Michael Greene said in a statement.
Charles Monnett, the Charlotte attorney for the Ferrell family in the lawsuit, told the Observer that it is hard to predict how Thursday’s announcement will affect the trial – if at all.
“But I think it’s pretty clear that the city recognized that what happened should never have happened and that the use of deadly force was not justified,” Monnett said. “I’m proud of what they did. ... They recognized the value of a life.”
The settlement – which was unanimously approved by the City Council in closed session – shields Kerrick, the city and the police from any further civil suit or penalty. It comes after three months of mediation, beginning with a Feb. 16 meeting between Georgia and Willie Ferrell, Jonathan Ferrell’s mother and brother, Clodfelter, police Chief Rodney Monroe, City Attorney Bob Hagemann and Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes.
“Georgia [Ferrell] and Chief Monroe had a particularly meaningful dialogue. Everybody respected Georgia and respected her loss,” said Monnett, who also was on hand.
The money, which will be mostly paid from a city fund to cover legal settlements, should be in the family’s hands “in a matter of days,” Hagemann said. “While we realize that money is an inadequate means of compensating Mr. Ferrell’s family, we feel that this was a fair and equitable settlement.”
Georgia Ferrell said Thursday afternoon that some of the settlement will be used to launch the “Justice for Jonathan Foundation.” Its goal, she said: “to help law enforcement and the community better understand one another.”
“Our mission has always been to ensure that no other innocent person unnecessarily loses their life to police violence,” she said in a statement released after the press conference. “We are grateful that this case has been resolved, but it is devastating to know that nothing we do will ever bring Jonathan back.”
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She said she hopes the loss of her son will lead to changes in police policies and attitudes – in Charlotte and around the country.
Laughrun and Greene criticized the City Council for first cutting money for Kerrick’s defense, then going behind closed doors “to spend precious taxpayer dollars” paying off the Ferrells while knowing little about the evidence.
“This civil settlement has absolutely no bearing on Officer Kerrick’s criminal case,” they said.
‘We all need each other’
On Sept. 14, 2013, Kerrick shot the unarmed Ferrell 10 times during an early-morning confrontation in a northeast Mecklenburg neighborhood.
Ferrell, a former college football player, had wrecked his car after giving a co-worker a ride home, then knocked on the door of a nearby home. Kerrick, with three years’ experience at the time, was the youngest of three CMPD officers to answer the 911 call for what they presumed was break-in.
According to police, Ferrell ignored the officers’ orders to get on the ground and ran straight into Kerrick. Monroe said at the time that a video shot from a nearby police car showed Ferrell was clearly unarmed and unnecessary force had been used. Kerrick became the first CMPD officer in at least three decades to be charged with an on-duty shooting.
Kerrick has been suspended without pay.
Kerrick’s defense team says during the struggle, Ferrell reached for the officer’s gun.
In January 2013, Ferrell’s family sued Kerrick, CMPD, and city and county government. The trial in federal court had been scheduled to start in November. Now, the city avoids the legal predicament of being a co-defendant in the federal lawsuit with the police officer it has charged with a crime.
Kerrick’s criminal trial will be prosecuted by the attorney general’s office. Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray stepped aside, citing his former partnership in Laughrun’s and Greene’s law firm.
Wyatt said it will be vital for the defense attorneys to determine how the civil settlement may have influenced potential jurors. Laughrun and Greene also may use the dollar amount to discredit the testimony from Ferrell’s family, should they be called to testify.
The case has already drawn angry demonstrations around the city. In a December court hearing, Kerrick was cursed in the courtroom by a spectator, and he was heckled by other demonstrators as he walked to his car. Last week, the presiding judge in the case refused a defense request to move the trial.
Over the past year, Monroe and his officers have held community meetings across the city to hear residents’ complaints and to explain how the department works. In June, Monroe is expected to give the City Council his recommendations on improving police training and adopting new policies in dealing with the public. He also persuaded the City Council to equip his officers with body cameras before the end of the year.
On Thursday, Clodfelter preached patience and cooperation. “Our men and women in uniform need the partnership of citizens and community leaders to do their jobs effectively. Our citizens need to know that those who serve them are willing to listen, to learn and to adjust,” Clodfelter said. “We all need each other.”
He thanked the Ferrells in his statement “for the grace they showed throughout this process.”
He did not mention Kerrick or his family.
Monroe addresses force
The family stands to receive an amount that is three times higher than the $700,000 settlement the city reached in January 2014 with the family of of a cellphone tower repairman fatally shot on the job by CMPD in 2006.
Earlier this year, a federal jury awarded $500,000 to the family of a Charlotte man who died after being hit twice with a police Taser.
In a letter to members of the department, Monroe said the settlement in the Ferrell case was considered fair by the city and that he continued to support his 1,800-member force.
“We are not perfect, nor will we ever be. However, that should not hinder us from striving for perfection as it relates to serving and protecting our citizens,” he said.
“This is especially true concerning the use of force. When we first put on the badge, we willingly accepted the responsibility that our actions would be fair and just. When challenges do arise, I am confident that we will face those challenges head on and not waver in our duty or our judgments.”
Monnett says police “need to take a close and hard look at their training and their procedures, and that’s what they’ve agreed to do. To their credit, they have already been taking steps.” Staff writer Mark Washburn contributed.