Four weeks after the first days of jury selection, testimony came to a close Monday in the voluntary manslaughter trial of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick.
By midafternoon Tuesday, the highly watched case will be handed over to 12 Mecklenburg residents – the eight women and four men of the jury.
That leaves closing arguments and Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin’s jury instructions. Special Deputy Attorney General Adren Harris will start summarizing the state’s case against Kerrick at 9:30 a.m. Defense attorney George Laughrun will follow for 90 minutes or more. Assistant Attorney General Teresa Postell will make the prosecution’s final presentation after that.
The jury will then decide if Kerrick is guilty. The first CMPD officer arrested in connection with an on-duty shooting in at least 30 years, Kerrick is accused of using excessive force in the Sept. 14, 2013, shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, 24. If convicted, Kerrick faces between three and 11 years in prison.
Though the incident took place before controversial police shootings of unarmed African-Americans in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Cleveland, the Kerrick case has unfolded against the backdrop of a nationwide debate over police use of deadly force. More than 50 witnesses testified, and the jury was shown almost 350 exhibits.
Ferrell, a former college football player, wrecked his fiancee’s car after giving a friend a ride home to the Bradfield Farms neighborhood, east of Charlotte. An autopsy showed Ferrell’s blood alcohol level at 0.06, and the friend said he and Ferrell smoked marijuana before Ferrell left. The legal limit for driving is 0.08. While a blood test showed no trace of marijuana in Ferrell, a police forensics expert testified Monday that she found Ferrell’s DNA on the remains of a marijuana cigarette taken from the friend’s home.
After the wreck at around 2:30 a.m., Ferrell pounded on a nearby home’s door. The woman inside called 911.Kerrick, 29, was one of three CMPD officers to respond to the call for a suspected breaking and entering in progress. During an encounter that lasted less than 30 seconds, Kerrick shot the unarmed Ferrell 10 times as the African-American man ran toward him. Kerrick, who is white, testified he fired in self-defense because he feared the larger man would overpower him and take his gun.
Monday, a state training expert said Kerrick’s decision to draw and then use his gun 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.
The prosecutors’ expert, CMPD Capt. Mike Campagna, said earlier in the trial that Ferrell did not pose a significant enough threat for Kerrick to fire his pistol. He said Kerrick had other ways to handle the situation.
Given the chance to question Cloutier, Postell tried to make the defense’s expert appear out of touch. Cloutier held his ground. While acknowledging that he had been retired as a full-time trainer for more than decade, Cloutier said the state guidelines that he helped develop had not significantly changed. When Postell said a police video of the encounter showed that Ferrell had nothing in his hands, Cloutier countered with Kerrick’s earlier testimony that Ferrell had swung both hands near his waistband as he approached.
The defense’s final witness was CMPD forensic biologist Eve Rossi who said she found Ferrell’s DNA on Kerrick’s gun and underneath one of his fingernails. Kerrick said he felt a tug on the firearm while he and Ferrell were struggling in a ditch. Rossi also said Kerrick’s uniform shirt tested possible for Ferrell’s blood, as did his pants and boots.
Under questioning by prosecutor Harris, Rossi acknowledged that none of her tests can determine how Ferrell’s DNA ended up on Kerrick’s uniform and weapon. Harris attempted to drive home the point, describing a scene in which the dying Ferrell would have been “lying on the ground being shot, and he swings his hand” to push Kerrick’s gun aside.
Defense attorneys Michael Greene and George Laughrun said their client kept shooting because Ferrell kept trying to overpower the officer.
Jurors – seven of whom are white, three black and two Latino – must now decide which version of events to believe. The verdict must be unanimous.
The long-awaited, dashcam video from one of the police cruisers at the shooting scene shows Ferrell walking toward the officers, and it shows Ferrell beginning to run after Officer Thornell Little aims his Taser. Little then fired and missed.
While the video captured the sound of voices and gunshots, the fatal confrontation between Ferrell and Kerrick occurs off-camera. Three seconds pass between Kerrick’s first command to “Get on the ground!” and his first shot.
Did Ferrell charge him, intending harm, as the officer testified? Or did Kerrick panic as Ferrell quickly approached him?
Some of the details in Kerrick’s various accounts of the event have changed – including the distance between him and Ferrell when Kerrick started shooting, when he first told Ferrell to stop and whether Ferrell tackled Kerrick or Kerrick tripped on his own.
But over two days of testimony, the police officer remained adamant on one point: He believed Ferrell would shoot him with his own gun.
Jurors must now decide if that was a reasonable fear.