Closing arguments at the voluntary manslaughter trial of Randall Kerrick
Closing arguments at the voluntary manslaughter trial of Randall Kerrick

Crime

Jury must decide whether Kerrick overreacted by shooting unarmed man

August 18, 2015 8:48 PM

Twelve jurors will now decide whether Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick used excessive force two years ago when he fatally shot an unarmed Jonathan Ferrell 10 times.

The eight-woman, four-man panel began deciding the voluntary-manslaughter case just before 3 p.m. Tuesday. It will resume deliberations at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Under instructions from Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin, the jurors must decide if Kerrick overreacted when he shot Ferrell during their brief encounter on Sept. 14, 2013. To acquit him, the panel must find that Kerrick acted with a reasonable belief that Ferrell posed a threat to kill or seriously injure him or two other officers.

The verdict must be unanimous. If convicted, Kerrick, 29, faces three to 11 years in prison. If the jury can’t reach a unanimous verdict, the case would end in a mistrial. Prosecutors would then decide whether to try Kerrick again.

Warriors? Police officers in the United States are not warriors. They are not at war with the citizens of the United States.

Assistant Attorney General Teresa Postell

First, jurors must sift through the testimony of more than 50 witnesses along with 350 pieces of evidence. Within minutes of beginning their deliberations, they sent a request to Ervin for more information about the elements of voluntary manslaughter. The judge brought them back into the courtroom so he could repeat the instructions.

Manslaughter means someone has died due to an intentional and unlawful act. When police are involved, the question is asked: Would a reasonable officer have reacted the same way in an identical situation?

The trial has played out against the nationwide debate over police use of force against African-Americans. Kerrick is white. Ferrell was black, and the issue of race, dormant for most of the trial, flared up during closing arguments.

A state prosecutor, who is black, quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his closing remarks. One of Kerrick’s attorneys, who is white, then accused the state of “inserting the race card” into the proceedings.

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” lead prosecutor Adren Harris said, quoting King, as he derided police testimony on how Ferrell’s actions contributed to his death.

Given his turn to speak, defense attorney George Laughrun pounced.

“There is no place for race in this case,” Laughrun told the jury, which is made up of seven whites, three blacks and two Latinos. “You should be offended that the state inserted the race card this morning.”

Much of the closing arguments paralleled the trial and focused on the actions of two men.

Ferrell, 24, a former college football player, wrecked his fiancee’s car in the Bradfield Farms neighborhood that night and pounded on a door in what prosecutors describe as a search for help.

Kerrick was one of three officers who responded when a woman in the house called 911 to say an unknown black man was trying to kick down her front door.

The two men’s encounter near the neighborhood pool lasted a few seconds. When Ferrell walked up, another officer aimed his Taser. Ferrell ran.

Kerrick, who already had pulled his pistol before the Taser was fired, stood in Ferrell’s path. The officer can be heard in a police dashcam video ordering Ferrell three times to get on the ground. His first shot rings out three seconds after his first command. In all, he fired 12 shots.

Harris, a special deputy attorney general, told jurors that panic drove Kerrick to pull his gun instead of relying on “a litany of other nonlethal options” – from his fists to his baton, pepper spray and Taser.

“Because he panicked, he abandoned all of his training. He abandoned everything that he learned to fire upon Jonathan,” Harris said.

He said police failure to communicate with Ferrell before pulling their weapons was proof that they had made up their minds that Ferrell had broken the law.

And he accused Kerrick’s attorneys of attempting “to demonize” Ferrell to take attention off their client’s actions.

Don’t be fooled by nitpicky details. … What he saw, what he knew has been absolutely consistent. Unarmed is not harmless. A body can be a weapon.

Defense attorney George Laughrun

The dashcam video, which both sides again played for the jury, showed what actually happened, he said. In it, Ferrell displays none of the erratic behavior that police described. It also proves, according to Harris, that Ferrell did not pose an imminent threat.

“The defendant made a bad choice when he pulled that trigger 12 times,” he said. “We’re not here to say he is a bad person, but he made a bad choice.”

In response, Laughrun opened with a Bible verse – “Blessed are those who keep justice” – and spoke for more than 90 minutes. He, too, talked about bad choices – the ones he said Ferrell made the night he died. He reminded jurors that Ferrell drank and smoked marijuana before wrecking the car. Afterward, he pounded on Sarah McCartney’s front door so hard that it left dents, Laughrun said.

Why didn’t Ferrell wait in McCartney’s yard for police to arrive? Laughrun asked. When he approached police near the pool, why didn’t he say he needed help instead of “bull rushing” Kerrick?

In contrast, Laughrun said, Kerrick chose to volunteer for the call. He pulled his firearm in compliance with police policies and began firing after Ferrell ignored orders to stop, the lawyer said. Kerrick kept firing because he believed Ferrell was after his gun, and “you shoot until the threat ends.”

The dashcam video, he said, “creates more questions than answers” since the confrontation between Kerrick and Ferrell occurs off camera. Just because the outlandish behavior by Ferrell that police describe can’t be seen doesn’t mean it did not take place, Laughrun said. “The Revolutionary War was in 1775. Did that not happen? There is no video.”

And he disparaged the testimony of a CMPD use-of-force expert who said Kerrick should have put his gun away once the encounter began to unfold. “He’s (Ferrell) blown through a Taser. It’s obvious he’s a suspect in a crime of violence who has failed to heed commands. … Does it make sense to reholster and say, ‘Hey bud, let’s fight’?”

Assistant Attorney General Teresa Postell had the last word with the jurors. She said Kerrick initially told investigators he started shooting when Ferrell was 10 feet away. He changed that to 3 to 5 feet when he testified. She also said Kerrick never told detectives about Ferrell swinging his arms down by his waistband as he ran toward the officer.

Postell reminded the panel that two other officers were on hand to provide Kerrick backup. Those officers never pulled their guns, she said.

“This case is about the defendant shooting an unarmed man 10 times,” she said. “Police officers don’t get to shoot people who walk up close to them and who might take their weapons.”

At the end, Postell produced three photos. Two showed Kerrick displaying his scraped elbow and cut mouth, injuries he said he received from Ferrell. The other showed Ferrell’s bullet-ridden body.

She walked the photos slowly past the jurors.

“This is what he did to Jonathan,” she said.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

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