CMPD Officer Randall "Wes" Kerrick describes shooting Jonathan Ferrell during his voluntary manslaughter trial Thursday. cwootson@charlotteobserver.com
CMPD Officer Randall "Wes" Kerrick describes shooting Jonathan Ferrell during his voluntary manslaughter trial Thursday. cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

Crime

Kerrick testifies: ‘I thought I was going to die’

August 13, 2015 09:10 PM

UPDATED August 14, 2015 07:24 AM

As he fired round after round at the man crawling up his body two years ago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick testified Thursday that a thought entered his mind in the chaos of a darkened ditch.

“I thought I was going to die,” he said in a breaking voice. “Nothing I could do would stop him.”

“... I don’t know how many rounds I fired. I didn’t think my gun was working.”

For more than 90 minutes, Kerrick, 29, dominated his own voluntary-manslaughter trial. The police officer, the first in Charlotte charged with an on-duty shooting in more than 30 years, faces at least three years in prison if convicted of the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell.

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Ferrell, 24, was shot 10 times during a Sept. 14, 2013, encounter with Kerrick and two other CMPD officers. The police were in the Bradfield Farms neighborhood responding to a reported break-in at a woman’s house. Ferrell, a former college football player, had wrecked his fiancee’s car nearby and had pounded on the woman’s door, ostensibly to get help. She called 911.

Prosecutors say neither Kerrick nor Officer Thornell Little identified themselves or gave Ferrell any commands before Little took aim at Ferrell with his Taser. Ferrell ran – at Kerrick. A police video of the encounter shows Kerrick gave Ferrell three loud commands to get on the ground before he began firing. Three seconds elapse from his first order to his first shot.

Kerrick’s police superiors said at the time of his arrest that Kerrick used excessive force because Ferrell was clearly unarmed. A CMPD training expert testified this week that Kerrick broke department policies by pulling his gun as backup for Little’s Taser and for unloading 12 shots at Ferrell when he had other means to subdue him.

On Thursday, his voice breaking from the start, Kerrick offered his account of how Ferrell died. Under questioning by defense attorney Michael Greene, Kerrick said when he saw Little pull his Taser, he pulled his .40-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol because that was what he had been trained to do.

Ferrell, according to Kerrick, was 5 feet away from Little when the officer fired the stun gun. “I didn’t think there was any way Officer Little could have missed,” he said.

On the video, Ferrell starts running when the Taser’s red tracer dots appear on his chest. Little fired. Ferrell then runs off camera.

Kerrick testified that at that point, he yelled for Ferrell to stop.

“The suspect focused on me. He was only focusing on me,” Kerrick said, adding that Ferrell began “aggressively coming toward me.”

I thought I was going to die. Nothing I could do would stop him.

Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick describing his struggle with Jonathan Ferrell.

Kerrick described Ferrell’s pace as a fast walk. It picked up speed after Ferrell swung his right arm down by his right pocket as if possibly drawing a weapon, Kerrick testified.

Kerrick said he shouted at Ferrell to get on the ground. During an interview with detectives after the shooting, Kerrick said he saw that Ferrell’s hands were empty. On Thursday, he testified that he did not know at the time if Ferrell was armed or not.

A police training expert told the jury Wednesday that under CMPD policy, officers should not use deadly force if they have any doubts that a suspect is armed. Kerrick testified that he felt he had no choice.

“How did you interpret his body language?” Greene asked.

“He was going to attack me,” Kerrick said between tears. “That he was going to assault me, that he was going to take my gun from me.”

Kerrick said he backpedaled about 20 feet, but Ferrell kept approaching. When Ferrell got within 3 to 5 feet, Kerrick said he started shooting. He said he thought he fired four to six times.

Prosecutors believe Kerrick then tripped, but the officer testified he fell after Ferrell collided with him. Both men landed in a ditch.

An earlier police witness testified he saw Ferrell at Kerrick’s ankles or shins, trying to crawl up the officer’s body. But Kerrick testified Thursday that Ferrell’s shoulders were at his waist, which would have put the dead man’s head at Kerrick’s abdomen or chest and within reach of the officer’s gun. Kerrick said Ferrell punched him and jerked at his firearm. Kerrick said he kept firing.

On the witness stand, Kerrick began to cry again.

“Was the suspect ever still?” Greene asked.

“No sir,” Kerrick said.

“Did he continue to advance?”

“Yes sir.”

“Did you fire once you got free?”

“No, I did not.”

Now approaching a month, Kerrick’s trial has played out against the backdrop of a national debate over police force against African-American targets.

Thursday, Ferrell’s brother, Willie Ferrell of Tallahassee, Fla., expressed little sympathy for the man he described as “the murderer” of his brother.

“If he was sincere with all that crying, he would have apologized a long time ago,” Ferrell said after court ended.

He also criticized the defense’s decision to show Kerrick’s bruises and scrapes to the entire courtroom while photographs of the bullet wounds in his brother’s body had been shown to jurors only.

“His injuries were very minor,” Ferrell said. “He’s still living. He’s still breathing.”

The state will have its chance to interview Kerrick after Greene finishes Friday.

On Thursday, though, lead prosecutor Adren Harris took Officer Thornell Little through some of the most adversarial questioning of the trial.

Little testified that when he got out of his police car, Ferrell was pacing in circles, pounding his thighs, and hollering. He said he told Ferrell to stop as he approached.

“He walked toward me. You could hear him say, ‘Shoot me!’ Twice,” Little testified.

Using the dashcam video of the scene from another officer’s car, Harris challenged Little’s testimony. At times Little struggled to answer Harris’ questions. He fumbled some details, contradicted himself on several facts and appeared to have difficulty recounting the events.

If he was sincere with all that crying, he would have apologized a long time ago.

Willie Ferrell, the dead man’s brother, speaking of Kerrick’s emotional testimony

Harris kept pushing the rewind button on the video. “I want you to let me know when you see that person spinning around or patting his thighs. You tell me when to stop it,” he told Little.

In the witness stand, Little watched as Ferrell appeared and walked casually toward Little’s car. No commands from the officer could be heard.

“Did you hear him say, ‘Shoot me, shoot me’? Did you hear yourself say ‘Stop!’” Harris said.

Not on the video, Little replied.

Harris wanted to know why Little pointed his Taser at Ferrell without identifying himself or giving him an order.

“Everything happened so fast, I didn’t have time,” Little said.

CMPD Officers Kerrick, Little testify in manslaughter trial

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers Randall 'Wes' Kerrick and Thornell Little testified Thursday in the manslaughter trial against Kerrick in the death of Jonathan Ferrell. Video by WBTV.

Harris replayed the video, once, twice, stopping it at various points to ask Little if he still thought he didn’t have time to say something as Ferrell approached.

“You’ve already pulled the Taser and put the red dots on him,” Harris said, “and all he’s done is walk?”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS