Emotional protesters blocked 4th Street in Uptown Charlotte after a mistrial was declared in the voluntary manslaughter trial of Randall 'Wes" Kerrick Friday. Video by Jeff Siner
Emotional protesters blocked 4th Street in Uptown Charlotte after a mistrial was declared in the voluntary manslaughter trial of Randall 'Wes" Kerrick Friday. Video by Jeff Siner

Crime

Jury deadlocks 8-4 in favor of acquittal; mistrial declared in Kerrick police shooting case

By Michael Gordon, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Mark Washburn

mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com

August 21, 2015 4:17 PM

Two years after a deadly struggle in the dark of night and three weeks into an emotionally charged trial, jurors said Friday they were hopelessly deadlocked, an outcome that satisfied neither side in the polarizing case of a white police officer charged with killing an unarmed black man.

The jury was unable to unanimously decide whether Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick used excessive force in firing 12 shots at Jonathan Ferrell, who charged at him moments after police encountered him walking near a neighborhood pool.

Eight jurors were for acquittal and four for conviction, according to someone close to the proceedings.

Within moments of the mistrial, about a dozen protesters, whites and blacks, lay down with hands behind their backs and blocked traffic outside the courthouse on Fourth Street, chanting “No justice, no peace.”

In the evening, starting at about 9 p.m., protests drew larger and younger crowds and police officers in tactical gear. A scuffle ensued at the Charlotte Transportation Center and at least one protester was taken into custody. A crowd of about 100 protesters gathered outside BB&T Ballpark, where the Knights were playing. The scene became tense, as people inside the ballpark and protesters outside yelled at each other through the fence.

Though some protesters were thumping on cars as they waited at intersections, no property damage was reported, and some of the protesters even found sympathizers among the drivers as they weaved into traffic near the stadium uptown.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said earlier Friday that the police would have a security plan for Saturday’s 7 p.m. preseason Panthers game uptown.

Jurors unanimous about deadlock

Jurors began deliberation Tuesday after 11 days of testimony. On Friday morning, they sent a note to Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin saying they couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict.

Ervin asked for a show of hands from the eight women and four men about whether they thought they could not reach a unanimous verdict. All raised their hands.

They revealed that they took their first vote Tuesday afternoon, shortly after jurors receiving instructions from the judge. They were split 7 to 5.

A second vote was taken Thursday afternoon, and it went 8 to 4. Another vote on Friday morning showed no minds had changed.

Defense Attorney George Laughrun asked the judge to declare a mistrial saying “it sounds like there would be no reasonable possibility” of coming to a verdict. Prosecutors asked the judge to let the jury continue its work.

Ervin sent the jury back to deliberate further and they initially indicated they were making progress. But they soon signaled there was no hope for resolving the deadlock.

Ervin declared a mistrial. “The case will remain open per further proceedings,” the Morganton judge told the hushed courtroom.

What occurred in the jury deliberations is largely a mystery.

The spouse of one juror who was reached late Friday did not want to talk. But the spouse said the jurors became very close during the trial and that this juror felt “that they were all very good people.”

Two jurors and three of the four alternates declined to speak to Observer reporters, and the others couldn’t be reached.

It will be up to prosecutors to decide whether to try the case again. They indicated Friday they wanted to study the trial record before making a decision.

Ferrell attorney calls it murder

Adren Harris, special deputy attorney general, said prosecutors will review the court record and “consider our options” about retrying the case.

“We offer our condolences to Jonathan Ferrell’s family,” Harris said, flanked by prosecutors Teresa Postell and Steven Arbogast.

Chris Chestnut, an attorney who represented the Ferrell family in the civil suit against the city, said they will press for a new trial.

“Without his badge, Officer Kerrick is a murderer,” said Chestnut, a Florida personal-injury attorney.

Chestnut said the jury should have been shown a video of Kerrick re-enacting the confrontation during an investigation into the shooting. His actions in that demonstration contradicted other statements he’d made, Chestnut said, saying that would give jurors more insight into Kerrick’s character.

He also accused the defense of “playing the race card” during the trial in their descriptions of Ferrell. “They tried to characterize him as a black thug,” Chestnut said.

Willie Ferrell, Jonathan Ferrell’s younger brother, warned against violent reactions. “We are not a violent family,” he said. “Jonathan wasn’t a violent person.”

Said Ferrell’s mother, Georgia Ferrell of Tallahassee, Fla.: “We’ve got to stop them from killing our children.”

We’ve got to stop them from killing our children.

Jonathan Ferrell’s mother

Kerrick’s family left the courthouse without comment, surrounded by deputies.

Michael Greene, one of Kerrick’s attorneys, said his client was “as well as one can be under the circumstances.”

Co-counsel George Laughrun said the defense would issue a statement Saturday.

City leaders ask for calm

Mindful that the case had exposed racial rifts in Charlotte, city officials appealed for people to settle differences without violence.

Police Chief Kerr Putney, whose department charged Kerrick the same day of Ferrell’s death, said CMPD officers are held to a high standard and sanctioned when they fall short. He said authorities will continue to work with prosecutors as they decide whether to re-try the case.

“This department is not defined by one incident,” said Putney.

Mayor Dan Clodfelter said people in Charlotte should respect the views of others.

“We’ve always found ways to work peacefully through our differences and we believe we will continue that legacy of solving our problems together,” said Willie Ratchford, community relations executive director. “It is how we do things in Charlotte.”

A sharper note was sounded in a statement from the Urban League of Central Carolinas by its president, Patrick Graham:

“The path to justice will not be in some ‘make me feel good about myself’ dialogue session. Nor will it be fulfilled by riots in neighborhoods that can least afford destruction.”

Police take measures in case of unrest

Putney said the police force had the “appropriate number” of officers on duty and standby to respond to any unrest. As of early evening, he said, “They’re acting the way Charlotte reacts – thoughtfully.”

Asked whether the department’s quick decision to charge Kerrick after the shooting left divisions within the agency after public airing of dashcam video that some saw as ambiguous, Putney said the department respects the judicial process.

“Some will have different opinions” within the department, he said. “But I expect those opinions to be set aside and for officers to serve their community.”

Kerrick will remain on unpaid suspension until the judicial process runs its course, Putney said, adding that administrative processes also will be followed.

Although jurors heard two interpretations of whether Kerrick was trained to draw his weapon when a second officer trained his Taser on Ferrell, Putney said the policy distinctions are clear.

“I understand the interpretations, but there’s no conflict in what is lethal cover and what is lethal force,” he said. Only when an officer faces lethal threat may the officer discharge a weapon, he said.

Excessive force was issue

At issue in the voluntary manslaughter case was whether Kerrick used excessive force when he shot Ferrell 10 times – or if he was justified because he thought Ferrell posed a deadly threat.

The trial opened Aug. 3 and lasted nearly three weeks. More than 50 witnesses testified and nearly 350 exhibits were shown to the jury of two Latinos, three African-Americans and seven whites.

Kerrick, 29, faces three to 11 years in prison if found guilty.

Though the incident took place before controversial police killings of unarmed African-Americans in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland, the Kerrick case has unfolded against the backdrop of a nationwide debate over police use of deadly force.

Vigil held at AME Zion

About 30 people gathered at Little Rock AME Zion Church in uptown to share grief, confusion and anger Friday evening.

Clergy had planned vigils at five churches around Charlotte, but Little Rock Pastor Dwayne Walker said attendance was so sparse that they all decided to gather at one spot.

The tone was thoughtful, mournful and sometimes angry. There were prayers for Ferrell’s family and for Kerrick and his family.

Two African American mothers voiced their fears that their sons could be in danger from officers who perceive them as a threat.

“I’m angry because they have stereotyped our children as animals,” said G. Rebecca Warren, minister of evangelism at Little Rock. “Black rage is a result of white anxiety. Why is it that you can’t look at our children and see the same potential that you see in your own?”

Walker called everyone to the altar, where they knelt and sang: “We need your peace, Oh Lord, come by here.”

Events began with car crash

According to police, Ferrell crashed his fiancee’s car about 2:30 a.m. Sept. 14, 2013, on his way home after an outing with acquaintances and then dropping off a friend in the Bradfield Farms neighborhood east of Charlotte. In the crash, 17 miles from his home, Ferrell lost his cellphone and shoes.

Prosecutors said he sought help by pounding on the door of a house about 350 yards from where the car crashed.

Afraid someone was trying to break in, the homeowner called 911. Kerrick and two other officers responded to a call of a suspected breaking-and-entering in progress.

Adren Harris, special deputy attorney general, said prosecutors will review the court record and ‘consider our options’ about retrying the case.

In an encounter that lasted less than 30 seconds, Kerrick shot the unarmed Ferrell after he ran toward him. Kerrick testified he fired in self-defense because he feared the larger Ferrell, a former college football player, would overpower him and take his gun.

An autopsy showed Ferrell’s blood alcohol level at 0.06 – under the legal limit of 0.08 for driving – and a friend said he and Ferrell smoked marijuana earlier that evening.

While a blood test showed no trace of marijuana in Ferrell, a police forensics expert testified that she found Ferrell’s DNA on the remains of a marijuana cigarette taken from the friend’s home.

Question of reasonable force

Kerrick testified that he yelled “Get on the ground” three times and then fired his first shots at Ferrell while backing up.

He then testified that he found himself in a ditch with Ferrell on top of him, crawling up his body and trying to take his gun. He said Ferrell’s shoulders were at his waist. He said he felt a jerk on his pistol.

“I thought I was going to die,” a tearful Kerrick testified, adding he felt he had no option but to shoot. “There was absolutely nothing else I could do.”

More than 50 witnesses testified and nearly 350 exhibits were shown to the jury of two Hispanics, three African-Americans and seven whites.

A state training expert testified that Kerrick’s decision to draw and use his pistol complied with state law enforcement training and CMPD directives on the use of lethal force.

Dave Cloutier, a longtime trainer with the state Justice Academy and now a professional expert witness on the use of force, said Kerrick was justified in shooting Ferrell because the two appeared to be struggling over the officer’s weapon. That made the situation “a lethal-force encounter,” Cloutier said.

But the prosecution’s expert, CMPD Capt. Mike Campagna, testified that Ferrell did not pose a significant enough threat for Kerrick to shoot. He said Kerrick had other ways to handle the situation.

Dashboard video shown in court

A dashboard camera in one of the police cars showed Ferrell walking toward the officers, then running in the direction of Kerrick after Officer Thornell Little aimed his Taser, fired and missed.

While the video captured the sound of voices and gunshots, the fatal confrontation between Ferrell and Kerrick occurred off-camera. Three seconds passed between Kerrick’s first order to “Get on the ground!” and his first shot.

Jurors were shown a recorded interview of Kerrick taken about four hours after the shooting. Kerrick described Ferrell as a man “with crazy-looking eyes ... like a hologram of some sort” who ignored his commands and didn’t stop when the officer’s pistol started firing.

Ferrell, 24, had moved to Charlotte from Tallahassee to be with his fiancee. He was a former scholarship football player for Florida A&M University. He was working at both Best Buy and Dillard’s at the time of his death.

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

Jonathon McFadden, Karen Garloch, David Perlmutt, Bruce Henderson, Ann Doss Helms, Elizabeth Leland and Andrew Dunn contributed.

Statement of Mayor Dan Clodfelter

These last four weeks from the commencement of the trial have been difficult and trying for many people, most especially those involved in the case and their families. I want to thank the entire community for the calm manner in which everyone has responded to the events of the trial.

Officer Kerrick’s trial has now ended. Twelve of our fellow citizens have heard all of the testimony. They have carefully considered all the evidence, but they were unable to agree on a unanimous verdict. What happens next with respect to the pending charges will be decided by the prosecuting authorities, but the work and the service of this jury are now done.

Our work, the community’s work, however, is not done. Our work, and CMPD’s work is continuing and must continue uninterrupted. On that night two years ago, one life was lost and another was changed. Regardless of what may happen now with respect to the pending charges against Officer Kerrick, we must continue to ask ourselves what we can do, what we must do to lessen our fear of each other, our misunderstanding of each other – fear and misunderstanding that can too often escalate when we find ourselves in tense or unfamiliar situations. And that task requires all of Charlotte, each one of us, to take ownership of the issue. It is not something that anyone outside of Charlotte can do for us or to us; it is something we must do ourselves. It is not something we can put aside or leave for another day.

What we ask of you, the people of Charlotte, is this. However you may feel about the outcome of this trial or about what should happen next, you must keep your ears, your minds, and your hearts open to the voices of others who may feel differently than you do. We must remember that the world looks very different depending on who you are and what you have experienced. And, we as a community must respect all of those different views of the world and those different voices; they matter. They all matter if we are to figure out a way forward from this tragedy.

We have to use this occasion, not brush it aside. We have to use this occasion to step up our listening to each other and our learning from each other about the many different worlds and lives that make up our city. If we will do that, if we will keep our commitment to the dialogue that has been opened up in so many places and among so many people over the course of recent months, we just may find ways to break down misunderstanding and fear. Our community will be stronger – and safer – for it.

The City Council and I, the City staff, and the men and women of CMPD are fully committed to that goal.

Statement of Willie Ratchford, community relations executive director

As a community, we in Charlotte-Mecklenburg have worked tirelessly for many months to address community concerns surrounding the tragic death of Jonathan Ferrell. We have encouraged our citizens to exchange personal stories, experiences and diverse perspectives to foster growth and healing during this difficult time. Community meetings and dialogues have helped foster peaceful protest and expressions of our First Amendment Rights.

We’ve brought together houses of faith, community organizations and organizers, millennials, local police and many others to ensure that we honor the words of Mrs. Georgia Ferrell who asked that we engage in peaceful and respectful behavior as we address our concerns related to this story. The Community Relations Committee encourages the public to engage and discuss peacefully based on personal stories, lived experiences and diverse perspectives related to this story.

Some in our community may be troubled or unfulfilled by the declaration of a mistrial and that’s understandable. We hope that everyone will be mindful that in our legal system, justice is a process, not a result.

We want to thank all people in Charlotte-Mecklenburg for the way you’ve handled this difficult situation. We must all continue the open dialogue we’ve started around police, community relations and our work to make Charlotte a community that honors us all with respect, dignity and appreciation.

In the past, we’ve always found ways to work peacefully through our differences and we believe we will continue that legacy of solving our problems together. It is how we do things in Charlotte.

Statement of Urban League of Central Carolinas, from president Patrick Graham

Based on recent print and television media coverage, divided perspectives on the connection between the value of black male bodies and policing, and overall disparities in Charlotte, the mistrial declared for Randall Kerrick is far from a surprise.

The verdict will follow with statements expressing sympathy, “keep calm,” and how we all need to honor the decisions of our justice system. However, there will need to be more than the garden variety plays off of the incredible, and sometimes puzzling, notions of African American forgiveness.

Jonathan Ferrell's family is one that has exhibited this long tradition of African American forgiveness of the failure of our democracy to fully live up to its promises. And while notions of grace are associated with taking the “high road,” there is another road that we must now demand, justice!

The path to justice will not be in some “make me feel good about myself” dialogue session. Nor will it be fulfilled by riots in neighborhoods that can least afford destruction.

The prosecutor of our beloved community must try it again. We all deserve that.

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