Observer reporter Michael Gordon revisits the scene of Jonathan Ferrell's death. Officer Wes Kerrick faces voluntary manslaughter charges following the shooting of the unarmed motorist. Video by Todd Sumlin
Observer reporter Michael Gordon revisits the scene of Jonathan Ferrell's death. Officer Wes Kerrick faces voluntary manslaughter charges following the shooting of the unarmed motorist. Video by Todd Sumlin

Crime

The tragic path from a 911 call to a fatal confrontation

August 01, 2015 4:00 PM

While the dashcam video is the most anticipated piece of evidence in the voluntary manslaughter trial of CMPD Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick, the jury will be asked to consider everything before deciding whether the killing of Jonathan Ferrell was a crime. This is a look at some of what is expected to be laid out.

Disturbance at the house

The jury will likely hear a dramatic 911 telephone conversation recorded shortly before Jonathan Ferrell was shot. A young woman, home alone with her infant child, is clearly distraught when she places the call.

It is 2:36 a.m. on a Saturday morning in the Bradfield Farms neighborhood. A burglar alarm blares in the background.

“I need help,” the woman says. “There’s a guy breaking into my front door. … He’s trying to kick it down.”

“OK,” says the 911 operator, who introduces himself as Norman. “Do you know this person?

“He’s a black man. I opened the door and thought it was my husband. I just woke up. I was asleep.”

“Oh my god,” the homeowner says repeatedly, her voice breaking. “Please hurry.”

In the background, another voice can be heard. “He’s yelling,” the homeowner tells Norman. “He’s yelling to turn off the alarm.” The woman screams out, “No!” She shouts that she has called 911.

Norman reassures her: Three officers are on their way.

Prosecutors contend that Ferrell had just wrecked his fiancee’s car and was seeking help when he banged on the woman’s door, about 350 yards from the crash scene; defense attorneys claim he was trying to break into the house.

Police seized the front door as evidence. It has not been publicly disclosed whether it was damaged.

The defense has asked the court’s permission for jurors to go to the neighborhood to see where everything took place and get a better understanding of the lighting conditions at night.

The judge is expected to rule on that motion at the close of the state’s case.

The autopsy report

An 11-page autopsy report will be introduced with testimony expected from Dr. Thomas Owens, a pathologist with the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s office.

“Received in a sealed body bag is the body of an adult black male who is in a prone position with his hands behind his back and handcuffs secured around the wrists,” Owens wrote. “A yellow metal watch is noted on the left wrist. The body is clothed in a blood-soaked T-shirt, jeans, belt, underwear and socks.”

The report lists the cause of death as “multiple gunshot wounds of the chest.” Eight of the 10 wounds followed a similar trajectory, front-to-back and downward. Three would have been lethal, the report says; two others potentially lethal.

The report cites a superficial abrasion on the back of Ferrell’s right wrist where he was handcuffed. Other injuries include an abrasion on his upper forehead and hemorrhaging in his scalp. The report does not speculate how those injuries occurred but notes Ferrell had been in a car accident before being shot.

Blood tests on Jonathan Ferrell found he was not legally intoxicated and there was no evidence of illegal substances.

There is no evidence of skull fracture or brain injury, the report concludes. Others, including attorney Charles Monnett who represented Ferrell’s family in a civil lawsuit, believe he must have suffered a head injury during the wreck because he acted so out of character afterward.

A toxicology test of Ferrell’s blood revealed caffeine and nicotine as well as a blood alcohol level of 0.06, which is within the legal limit of 0.08 for driving.

Ferrell’s actions

Though Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick is on trial, Ferrell’s behavior is expected to be targeted by the defense.

Kerrick’s attorneys argued in a pretrial hearing that Ferrell was out of control after smoking marijuana at a friend’s house and then wrecking his fiancee’s car. Blood tests found no evidence of illegal substances.

No explanation for the cause of the wreck has been made public, although a prosecutor said in a May court hearing that Ferrell may have been fumbling with his cellphone moments before the crash.

Ferrell emerged from the wreck without shoes, police said, and without his cellphone. The phone was later found in the car.

The defense will likely emphasize what they describe as Ferrell’s “bizarre behavior” – banging on the homeowner’s door but never saying why he was there in the middle of the night and never asking for help; and then, when police officers confronted him, running straight at Kerrick.

Prosecutors maintain Ferrell never posed a threat – either to the homeowner or to police.

There is no pattern of aggressive behavior in Ferrell’s past. Public records reveal no criminal convictions; he once was charged with misdemeanor battery after shoving a man but the charge was dropped.

Kerrick’s actions

The central issue in the trial is how Kerrick acted when he encountered Ferrell.

Did the officer overreact in the heat of the moment as the bigger man charged his way?

Rodney Monroe, police chief when Kerrick was charged, said Ferrell was clearly unarmed and even one shot was too many. Kerrick fired 12.

Or was Kerrick justified in using deadly force, as the defense contends?

Kerrick’s attorneys have asserted that Kerrick and two other officers assumed they were tracking a burglary suspect. The police dispatcher told the officers that a man had “kicked through” the homeowner’s door. The dispatcher then says the man may have left.

When Kerrick arrived at the house, his attorneys said, he heard someone off in the distance yelling. For all he knew, the attorneys said, the woman could have been kidnapped.

Kerrick and Officer Thornell Little drove over to check. When they got out of their cars, Ferrell approached.

The state maintains that neither Kerrick nor Little identified themselves as police officers or gave any commands to Ferrell as he walked toward them.

The defense maintains that Kerrick told Ferrell numerous times to “stop” and to “get on the ground.” In a pretrial hearing in May, the defense also claimed that Ferrell told Little: “Shoot me. Shoot me.” Those assertions came from the officers, the defense says, not from a dashcam video recorded during the confrontation.

According to a motion filed by prosecutors, Little placed the red laser targeting beams of his Taser on Ferrell. They said that Ferrell, fearing for his life, ran for an opening between the two patrol cars, the same place where Kerrick stood with his gun drawn.

Prosecutors point out that the two other officers who responded to the call did not pull their guns.

Little fired his Taser and missed, the prosecutors said, and Ferrell continued to run toward Kerrick. Kerrick fired 12 shots.

A motion by defense attorneys gave a more detailed description of what they contend was the sequence of shots. They maintain that as Ferrell ran toward him, Kerrick backed away while continuing to give commands to “get on the ground.” After Ferrell got within an arm’s length and reached toward his waistband, Kerrick fired, his attorneys said.

The two men fell into a ditch, the attorneys said. They claim Ferrell then struck Kerrick in the face and grabbed his gun. Kerrick, they said, fired again.

The attorneys contend that Kerrick feared for his life and for the lives of his fellow officers.

Eyewitnesses

North Carolina law allows the use of lethal force by police “only when it appears reasonably necessary ... to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.”

One of the clarifying gauges: Would another “reasonable officer” in the same situation act the same way?

Little and Neal have not spoken publicly. But they are expected to testify on Kerrick’s behalf.

During a hearing Thursday, attorneys argued over a statement Little gave to an investigator, saying that if Ferrell had charged at him, he “would have shot him two rounds center mass.” A prosecutor argued that because Little is not an expert witness, his opinion should not be allowed as testimony. A defense attorney disagreed. The judge withheld a decision.

Prosecutors point out that neither Little nor Adam Neal, the third officer who responded to the call, pulled their guns. Monroe told the Observer in 2013: “We have people charging at us every day; we get in fights every day, but at that point we’re not justified in using deadly force. Sometimes we have to put up our hands and use our nightstick and other things and sometimes just retreat to handle the situation and it can’t automatically result in use of deadly force.”

Police training

In a civil lawsuit filed against the city, Ferrell’s family contended Kerrick was improperly trained. The city settled the suit for $2.25 million.

It could be he was trained a certain way and that’s what he did.

Bob McDonnell, who represented the accused officer in a civil lawsuit

“How Wes was trained would be some indication of how he responded,” said attorney Bob McDonnell, who represented Kerrick in the civil lawsuit. “It could be he was trained a certain way and that’s what he did. I would assume that training would be an issue in a criminal case.”

CMPD has declined to detail what it teaches officers about the use of force. The department’s prime directive is no more force than necessary.

Officers are told to respond in kind – using words to respond to a verbal standoff, using force on what could be described as a sliding scale. If a subject is engaged in “aggravated active aggression,” officers can respond in a number of ways, from extreme physical force to using their guns.

According to defense attorneys, Kerrick had drawn his gun in earlier incidents, but never fired until Sept. 14, 2013, when he let off 12 rounds, 10 of them hitting Ferrell.

Elizabeth Leland: 704-358-5074, @elizabethleland

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