Officer’s case to return to new grand jury Monday

mgordon@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 22, 2014 

  • Group announces event for Ferrell

    Charlotte supporters of Jonathan Ferrell will hold a rally 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Next Level Ministries, 7121 Orr Road, Charlotte. Doors will open at 6.

    According to a news lease, local leaders will discuss the failure of a Mecklenburg grand jury to indict a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer in connection with Ferrell’s death.

    The event will go on, despite Attorney General Roy Cooper’s announcement that prosecutors will take the case before a different grand jury Monday.

    “We’re not taking any chances,” said activist John C. Barnett, who’s scheduled to speak at the event.

Rebuffed in its first effort to get a criminal indictment against a police officer accused of shooting an unarmed Charlotte man, the state attorney general’s office announced Wednesday that it will take the case before a different grand jury next week.

Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a prepared statement that state prosecutors will resubmit their case against Police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick on Monday.

Prosecutors will again seek an indictment of voluntary manslaughter, which Cooper called “the most appropriate charge given the facts in the case.”

Kerrick, 28, was arrested in connection with the Sept. 14 shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, 24. If convicted of voluntary manslaughter, Kerrick faces a prison term of between three and 11 years.

Investigators say Kerrick shot the former Florida A&M football player 10 times from close range. Kerrick was arrested that same day, the first CMPD officer charged in connection with an on-duty shooting in at least 30 years. Kerrick’s attorneys say the shooting was tragic but justified.

State prosecutors now hope for a different outcome – from a different Mecklenburg grand jury – than what they received Tuesday.

In a rare and unexpected move, jury members not only declined to indict Kerrick for voluntary manslaughter but asked prosecutors to submit a lesser charge for them to consider. Veteran Charlotte attorneys said they had never encountered a similar situation before.

Cooper cited a shortage of grand jury members in announcing that he will try for another indictment.

A grand jury normally has 18 members. But only 14 were on hand Tuesday to hear the evidence against Kerrick presented by CMPD and state investigators, court officials said Wednesday.

Twelve votes are needed for an indictment. In Kerrick’s case, that meant as few as three jurors could block one.

“You have no cushion there,” said Steve Ward, a former longtime Mecklenburg prosecutor who now teaches law at Belmont Abbey College. “So I can understand why the attorney general wants to submit the case to a full panel and see what happens.”

Mecklenburg County chooses two grand juries to serve six-month terms. They meet in alternating weeks, meaning a new group of jurors will now hear the Kerrick case.

Ward, a Mecklenburg assistant district attorney for 25 years, says a full grand jury may give prosecutors a better shot at getting an indictment. But he adds that there’s no guarantee 18 jurors will show up next week.

“Maybe one will call in sick. Maybe another will have child-care issues,” Ward said. “Or maybe a couple will say ‘I want to dodge this one. I don’t want this case on my conscience.’ 

After Cooper’s announcement, defense attorney George Laughrun declined comment Wednesday night. The day before, he had celebrated an apparent victory, calling it “a great day for the Kerrick family” during a press conference outside the county courthouse.

Earlier Wednesday, he said the first grand jury had enough members on hand to conduct business, and that it would be unfair for prosecutors to resubmit the Kerrick case based on a few absences.

“If you think it’s not fair, then don’t submit it to the grand jury in the first place,” he said.

African-American leaders, who expressed anger and frustration at the grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer for the shooting death of an unarmed black man, welcomed the quick response from prosecutors.

“Many of us were disheartened after the news we heard yesterday. It seemed too familiar to us that the life of an African-American man was not valued,” said Dr. Dwayne Walker, pastor of the Little Rock AME Zion Church of Charlotte.

“It’s good that Attorney General Cooper has taken another look and made this announcement. It gives me hope that justice will be finally be done.”

A ‘case on my conscience’

Ferrell moved to Charlotte about a year before his death to be with his fiancee. On the night of the shooting, he had given a co-worker a ride home after an evening with friends at Hickory Tavern. His autopsy report estimated his blood-alcohol level at .06, which made it legal for him to drive. It also showed no illicit drugs in his system.

But after dropping his friend off in the Bradfield Farm neighborhood northeast of Charlotte, Ferrell wrecked his car on Reedy Creek Road, losing his cellphone in the process. He walked to the nearest home, apparently in search of help.

Kerrick was one of three officers responding to a 2 a.m. 911 call from a resident frightened by a late-night stranger pounding on her door. Police found Ferrell nearby.

During the brief confrontation that followed, Kerrick fired 12 shots at Ferrell from a few feet away, police said.

Within days of Ferrell’s death, state prosecutors took over the case against Kerrick at the request of Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray, a former law partner of Kerrick’s defense team.

An air of uncertainty has hung over the case for 24 hours.

Chris Chestnut, the Ferrell family’s attorney, said the refusal of the grand jury to indict leaves him skeptical of Cooper’s announcement to push ahead with the criminal case.

“Jonathan Ferrell was a quality human being who worked hard and cared for those around him. He deserved better,” Chestnut said in a prepared statement. “Whatever the findings of this grand jury, we will do everything in our power to ensure that his family realizes justice for Jonathan and all Americans.”

In an interview earlier in the day, Ferrell’s mother, Georgia Ferrell of Tallahassee, Fla., urged the next grand jury “to look at all the evidence, the real evidence, and watch the (video) from the police car camera.”

Georgia Ferrell, who filed suit against Kerrick, police and local government over her son’s death, asked Charlotte residents “to just keep fighting. Don’t give up the faith. We must have justice.”

Monroe: ‘We were correct’

The so-called dash-cam footage taken at the scene appears to be a potentially pivotal piece of evidence in the case. It lasts only 15 seconds and does not show the shooting, according to police. But after watching it, Monroe and his command staff accused Kerrick of using excessive force.

Laughrun insists the video, which has not been made public, proves his client acted lawfully. He says it shows that Ferrell ignored police orders to stop, then veered into Kerrick, the least experienced officer on hand and the only one who fired his gun. Another officer unsuccessfully used his Taser to stop Ferrell.

Because the grand jury meets in private, without a judge or attorneys on hand, it is not clear if Tuesday’s panel saw the video. Members do have the power to request evidence beyond what’s presented by investigators.

Kerrick remains suspended without pay.

Meanwhile, Monroe said Wednesday that his department stands by its decision to charge one of its own.

“I respect the civil process. I respect the criminal process, and we’re still in that process,” he told the Observer. “I believe that we were correct (in charging Kerrick) but we have to let that process play out.”

Staff writer Cleve Wootson Jr. contributed

Gordon: 704-358-5095

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