The voluntary manslaughter trial of former CMPD Officer Randall "Wes" Kerrick began Monday with opening statements and testimonies from the first few witnesses. hcfowler@charlotteobserver.com
The voluntary manslaughter trial of former CMPD Officer Randall "Wes" Kerrick began Monday with opening statements and testimonies from the first few witnesses. hcfowler@charlotteobserver.com

Crime

Victim’s behavior dominates opening of CMPD officer’s shooting trial

By Michael Gordon and Elizabeth Leland

mgordon@charlotteobserver.com

eleland@charlotteobserver.com

August 03, 2015 08:58 PM

UPDATED August 04, 2015 10:47 AM

Wes Kerrick’s defense attorney in his voluntary-manslaughter trial talked Monday about choices – and the jury weighing his fate will have to choose between two very different versions of what happened the night two years ago when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell.

There’s the version according to defense attorneys of an erratic, aggressive Ferrell tackling Kerrick in the dark on Sept. 14, 2013.

Then there’s the prosecution’s version of Ferrell crawling at Kerrick’s feet before the police officer unleashed the last of 12 shots on the unarmed man.

Was Ferrell, as prosecutors portray, an innocent car wreck victim simply seeking help? Or did he angrily try to kick down the door of a young mother home alone with her infant child, as the defense claims?

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Kerrick’s future depends on which version the 12 jurors – seven whites, three blacks and two Latinos – choose. If convicted, the 29-year-old Kerrick faces up to 11 years in prison.

As testimony began, much of the evidence Monday centered on not what Kerrick did, but about who Ferrell was. The most emotional moment came when his fiancee, Caché Heidel, broke down in tears as she confided about a disagreement she and Ferrell had the morning before he died.

The argument was a chronic one, Heidel said: What was he doing about his life and career, about finding “a solid foundation” so they could marry and have a family? She left for work, didn’t respond to two of his texts and never saw him alive again.

“I didn’t say I love you, and I didn’t say goodbye,” Heidel said.

Ferrell wrecked her car on his way home around 2:30 a.m. after an outing with friends. He walked back to a house in the Bradfield Farms neighborhood east of Charlotte and banged on the front door. Homeowner Sarah McCartney, afraid someone was trying to break in, called 911. Kerrick and two other Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers responded, and a quick and deadly confrontation followed. Kerrick hit Ferrell with 10 shots from close range.

At the end of the day, jurors were shown a graphic photograph of the victim lying face down in a ditch, his hands cuffed behind his back. Jonathan Freeze, an emergency medical technician from a volunteer fire department a mile away, testified that he checked Ferrell’s right wrist and the right side of his neck and found no pulse.

Freeze said Kerrick sat in the front seat of his patrol car, hands on his knees, “real pale, clammy and very upset.” He had a small cut on the inside of his cheek and red discoloration on his cheek and chin from what his attorneys contend was Ferrell’s fist.

Kerrick had blood on his hands, pants cuffs and his shoes, Freeze said. “I asked him if it was his.”

It was Ferrell’s.

Freeze said Kerrick later mumbled that he thought he was going to be sick.

Before the wreck

Ferrell, 24, had moved to Charlotte from Florida with Heidel in the summer of 2012 when she took a job with a Charlotte accounting firm. He was a former scholarship football player for Florida A&M University, working at Best Buy and Dillard’s at the time of his death.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who polices the police when they do wrong? You.

Adren Harris, lead prosecutor

That night, Sept. 13, 2013, Ferrell socialized at Hickory Tavern with co-workers from Best Buy. Waitress Erika Hudson testified that Ferrell ordered a dozen wings and two Coors Lights. She said she was struck by his politeness and quiet, good humor.

Around 1 a.m., co-worker Max Funderburke testified he left the restaurant with Ferrell for the 15-mile drive to Funderburke’s home in Bradfield Farms. He said he and Ferrell watched TV, then smoked marijuana in the garage. The defense asked Funderburke whether he told investigators two years ago that it was Ferrell’s idea to smoke, and Funderburke said he now can’t recall who suggested it.

Ferrell’s autopsy and another blood test found no evidence of marijuana in his system; his blood-alcohol level was .06, under the legal limit for driving.

Funderburke also testified that he and Ferrell smoked marijuana once before, at a barbecue at Ferrell’s house.

He said Heidel was at home but didn’t take part. Earlier Monday, Heidel had testified that Ferrell smoked marijuana only twice in his life, both times with her when they were in college.

A few minutes after Ferrell left Funderburke’s house, Funderburke said he texted him: “Good look on the ride,” which is slang for “thank you.” Prosecutors have said Ferrell was fumbling with his cell phone when he crashed on his way out of the neighborhood. He climbed out of the car through the back window, they said, then walked back to the first house he saw.

‘I was terrified’

Sarah McCartney appeared shaken as she testified about Ferrell banging on her front door around 2:30 a.m. She said she opened the door slightly, thinking it might be her husband home from his night shift as a nurse. She said she saw a muscular black man with his leg raised as if he planned to kick down her door.

She slammed the door shut. “I was terrified. I was worried about my child,” she told the jury.

McCartney began weeping as the defense team played her frantic 911 call, when she sobbingly asked why it was taking police so long police to arrive.

She said Ferrell seemed angry and mad. At the request of defense attorney George Laughrun, she pounded on the witness stand to demonstrate how he banged on her front door. She hit the stand so loudly, she knocked her courtroom microphone offline.

Lead prosecutor Adren Harris, a special assistant attorney general, pointed out discrepancies with her earlier statement. McCartney told police in 2013 she heard the person in her yard say, “Turn it off, come back,” referring to her home alarm system. She told the defense Monday she doesn’t remember anybody saying that.

Under questioning by Harris, she said she’d never seen Ferrell punch or kick her door. But she said she’d heard it.

Policing the police

The trial opened against a backdrop of a number of high-profile shootings of black men by white police officers. Kerrick is white; Ferrell was black.

Ferrell’s bad choices that night forced Kerrick to “make the ultimate choice,” defense attorney Michael Greene told jurors in his opening statement.

“This case is not about race. It never was,” Greene said. “It’s about choice. “

He portrayed Ferrell’s last hours in a negative light – having argued with Heidel, smoked marijuana and kicked at McCartney’s door. “She didn’t hear him yell, “Help!’ because he never said it,” Greene said.

He said Ferrell’s DNA was found on the slide and trigger of Kerrick’s gun.

Harris painted a starkly different image. He said Ferrell was afraid for his life when Officer Thornell Little aimed his Taser at him. Ferrell ran between two squad cars, where Kerrick was standing.

As Ferrell approached, Kerrick back-pedaled and fired four shots, then he fell into a ditch, Harris said. He said Ferrell, injured, fell at Kerrick’s feet. Kerrick fired more six shots, Harris said. When Ferrell’s body moved again, Harris said, Kerrick fired twice more.

“Neither officer on the scene, while Jon is lying face down in a pool of blood, attempts to render any first aid,” Harris said.

Instead, they handcuffed him.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” Harris said. “Who polices the police when they do wrong?”

Harris looked at the jurors and said simply: “You.”

The defense team fought to keep the jury from seeing the photo of Ferrell lying in the ditch. Defense attorney Greene said its only purpose was to elicit sympathy from the panel. Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin overruled him.

Almost immediately, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police detective walked up to Georgia Ferrell, the victim’s mother, to warn her about what was about to be shown on the courtroom screen. Family members also leaned in, apparently urging her to leave.

Ferrell shook her head no. “I have to see it,” she whispered.

When the photo appeared, Ferrell clutched a tissue and stared at her dead son’s body. Ten minutes later, she was still crying.

Protesters march outside Kerrick trial

Protesters pray before marching to courthouse. Video By Todd Sumlin

tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Staff Writers Ann Doss Helms, Hayley Fowler and Langston Taylor contributed.