Clashing Views Followed SBI, CMPD Probes of Police Shooting
The decision to charge police officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick in the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell divided not only a jury and the city – it divided law enforcement as well, newly released court papers and interviews show.
Court transcripts reveal how top leaders in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office met less than 24 hours after the shooting. They unanimously agreed that Ferrell was unarmed and that he was a victim of excessive force.
But the SBI, which later conducted a separate investigation, determined that Kerrick was justified in using deadly force to defend himself, two attorneys who were involved in the case told the Observer.
Then-Senior Deputy Attorney General Jim Coman weighed evidence from both agencies before seeking a grand jury indictment against Kerrick – a move that put him at odds with his office’s investigative arm.
The accounts provide the fullest picture to date about how police and prosecutors arrived at decisions that have sparked public debate for more than two years.
Ferrell was black and Kerrick is white. The case pulled Charlotte into the national debate about police use of deadly force against African-Americans.
You can’t justify shooting an unarmed man 10 times. How can you look the public in the eye and say, ‘You can shoot an unarmed man 10 times’?
Kerrick was tried this summer on a voluntary manslaughter charge, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Eight jurors favored acquitting Kerrick, and four believed he was guilty. With the jury deadlocked, Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin declared a mistrial. The N.C. Attorney General’s Office later decided not to re-prosecute the case.
Critics almost from the start called the decision to charge Kerrick unwarranted. Others praised CMPD for taking the rare step of arresting an officer following an on-duty shooting.
In an interview Friday, Coman said that his decision to pursue an indictment hinged on the fact that Kerrick shot Ferrell 10 times during an early morning confrontation in northeast Mecklenburg County.
“You can’t justify shooting an unarmed man 10 times,” said Coman, who retired in 2014. “How can you look the public in the eye and say, ‘You can shoot an unarmed man 10 times’?”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney issued a written statement on Friday defending how the department handled the Kerrick case. At the time of the shooting, Putney was deputy chief under Chief Rodney Monroe, who retired in July.
“It was a painful but necessary decision reached by people both within the CMPD and in consultation with the District Attorney’s Office,” he said. “As police officers, we must abide by the law and be responsible for our actions. The decision to arrest in this case was the right thing to do in the interest of justice.”
Deposition transcripts obtained by the Observer through a public records request show how top CMPD commanders and local prosecutors quickly became convinced that Kerrick should be charged.
The depositions – sworn pretrial testimony – were taken in January as part of the Ferrell family’s civil lawsuit against the city of Charlotte. The city paid $2.25 million and settled the suit in May.
Ferrell was killed Sept. 14, 2013, after he wrecked his car and went to a nearby home. A woman inside called 911 and reported that an unknown man was trying to break in.
When Kerrick and two other officers confronted Ferrell, he immediately moved toward them, police have said. Kerrick fired his gun.
In the hours after the shooting, Maj. Michael Smathers said in his deposition, he repeatedly viewed the dashcam video that captured part of the encounter. Smathers said he had extensive conversations related to the footage and attended multiple meetings to discuss the shooting with CMPD commanders.
The video shows Ferrell almost casually walking toward officers. The beam from a police Taser appears on his chest. Ferrell starts to run, disappears off camera, and suddenly the sound of gunfire erupts. Kerrick never appears on camera.
“I initially had concern the very first time I watched the video, but I watched it dozens of times that day, and that feeling never left me,” said Smathers, who led CMPD’s criminal investigation unit.
Smathers said in the deposition that he believed the shooting was unjustified because Ferrell was unarmed and his hands were visible to Kerrick and the other officers.
Smathers said that after repeatedly viewing the video, he called Chief Monroe about his concerns.
“Chief Monroe’s, you know, mandate was to just continue to do our work and just to see if we continue to feel that way,” Smathers testified.
Roughly 12 hours after the shooting, Smathers, several other CMPD commanders, Mecklenburg County Deputy District Attorney Bart Menser and Assistant District Attorney Bill Stetzer convened at CMPD’s uptown headquarters to watch the dashcam video.
They all agreed Kerrick should be charged with voluntary manslaughter, Smathers testified. In all his discussions and meetings that day related to the video, Smathers said, no one voiced a dissenting opinion.
The SBI viewed the evidence differently.
Under CMPD rules, officers can use deadly force if they face imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death. Kerrick told investigators that he feared for his life when Ferrell charged at him. He said he thought Ferrell was trying to take his gun.
Special Agent in Charge Scott Williams, who led the state probe, told the Observer there wasn’t enough evidence to prove or disprove Kerrick’s statement. It is unclear why Ferrell was running toward Kerrick, Williams said.
“We were unable to eliminate the possibility that Jonathan Ferrell was trying to take his gun,” Williams said. “We weren’t able to conclusively prove why Ferrell’s DNA was on the gun. We couldn’t eliminate the possibility he was reaching for the gun.”
Williams stressed that his agency doesn’t offer opinions on whether criminal charges should be filed in such cases. He said SBI investigators try to gather information that shows whether an officer’s account of a shooting can be verified or proven false.
The SBI and CMPD gathered much of the same evidence, but Williams said his agency interpreted the facts differently.
Williams said state investigators took about two weeks to interview witnesses, watch the dashcam video, inspect Kerrick’s personnel file and take other steps.
He said he could not recall any police shooting investigation that was completed and turned over to prosecutors in one day. That would not give officers enough time to learn DNA and autopsy results, he said.
“I would like that information before I would find probable cause not just against a police officer, but for anyone,” said Williams, who is based in Greensboro and usually oversees SBI operations in the northern Piedmont district.
Defense attorney George Laughrun, who represented Kerrick, said a senior SBI agent was willing to testify that criminal charges were unwarranted, but that agent, whom Laughrun did not identify, was never called to testify during the trial.
In fact, prosecutors did not call any SBI investigators to testify at trial, a move Laughrun called unusual since the agency led the investigation.
Prosecutor, SBI disagree
CMPD typically investigates its own officers after on-duty shootings. Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray then decides whether his office will file charges.
Murray, however, recused himself from the Kerrick case, citing the appearance of a conflict of interest. Kerrick was represented by attorneys from Goodman, Carr, Laughrun, Levine & Greene, a prominent Charlotte law office where Murray worked for about a decade, and the N.C. Attorney General’s office took over the prosecution.
Coman, the former senior deputy attorney general, told the Observer that the SBI believed that Kerrick was justified in firing his gun since Ferrell ignored the officer’s commands and showed aggression.
Coman acknowledged that the SBI made strong arguments. The officers were responding to a report of a home invasion, a serious crime. Unlike most suspects, Coman said, Ferrell failed to stop and put his hands in the air even after one officer fired a Taser.
But Coman said he sought charges because Kerrick used more force than necessary to subdue Ferrell. He said there were three officers on the scene and they could have physically subdued Ferrell without using deadly force.
“I couldn’t justify 10 shots,” Coman said. “If he shot him once, maybe twice, I would have looked at it differently.”
In January 2014, a grand jury declined to indict Kerrick for voluntary manslaughter. Prosecutors resubmitted the same charge to a second grand jury, which indicted Kerrick.
Coman said he and other prosecutors knew they faced a tough fight to win a conviction, given the circumstances of the case.
“We tried to get justice for the Ferrell family,” Coman said. “It’s just one of those cases that is not clear-cut. When that happens, the jury is going to give the benefit of the doubt to the officer.”
Charlotte Observer staff writers Michael Gordon and Elizabeth Leland, and researcher Maria David contributed.