Trial Begins for a North Carolina Cop Who Shot an Unarmed Black Man in 2013

August 4th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Opening arguments began this Monday in the voluntary manslaughter trial of a North Carolina police officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black man who was asking for help after a car crash, the New York Times reported. On Tuesday, a string of images showing dead man's body displayed in court caused his attending family members to leave the courtroom twice, and became a point of contention for defense lawyers, who suggested they were shown to sway the jury, the Charlotte Observer noted.

Officer Randall Kerrick, who was suspended following the fatal shooting, required two grand juries to be indicted—a first initially declined—of voluntary manslaughter for killing 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell on the night of September 14. The trial is expected to drag on for weeks, according to The Times, and if convicted, Kerrick faces three to 11 years in prison, according to the Charlotte Observer. Ferrell's family already reached a $2.25 wrongful death settlement with the city of Charlotte.

According to news reports, a win by either the defense or the prosecution hinges on conflicting characterizations of Ferrell, who was confused for a burglar when he knocked on the door of a stranger's house seeking help after a car crash two years ago. While prosecutors portrayed Ferrell as a kind and gentle young man petrified by fear when police showed up pointing a laser-sighted Taser at his chest, Kerrick's lawyer alleges that Ferrell was pacing about, pounding his thighs and grunting when police showed up, and that he attacked Kerrick even after he was shot multiple times.

"This case is not about race. It never was," Kerrick's attorney, Michael Greene, told the jury Monday. "It's about choice," he said, highlighting the defense's argument that seems to center on a series of alleged poor behavioral choices made by Ferrell in the moments leading up to his death.

Reports from the scene indicate that Ferrell, a former football player at Florida A&M University, was lying face down in a ditch with 10 bullets in him shortly after Kerrick and two other officers responded to a triggered burglar alarm at the house of Sarah McCartney shortly after 2:30 a.m. Earlier that night, Ferrell had gone out with Best Buy co-workers and consumed beer and marijuana—a fact the defense was quick to latch on to—and crashed his fiancee's car on his way home in a suburb east of Charlotte.

After kicking out the rear window to exit the vehicle, Ferrell walked to a house nearby to seek help, but a frightened McCartney called 911 instead of offering assistance.

"I was terrified. I was worried about my child," McCartney said in court Tuesday. When the officers showed up and pointed a red laser on Ferrell's chest, he reportedly panicked and ducked between the two cars, prompting Kerrick to fire four times, and causing them both to fall to the ground, according to the prosecution's account. Kerrick continued to fire at the lifeless Ferrell, and officers subsequently handcuffed his body.

Multiple images shown in court Tuesday of the bloodied body became a point of contention between the defense and prosecution, and caused Ferrell's family to leave the courtroom on two occasions, the Observer reported. The raw emotion in the atmosphere also led Kerrick's lawyers to ask that a photo be taken down while a clerk made a copy for evidence, telling Court Judge Robert Ervin that the photos and their effect on the family pandered to the "heart strings of the jury[.]" "This is a voluntary manslaughter case," said Michael Greene, co-counsel for Kerrick. "We do expect a picture of the [dead man]. But how many?"

Though the incident itself occurred before the series of suspicious deaths that set off an intense national debate about underlying racial tensions and overbearing police tactics, the trial comes about one year after Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, drew pointed national scrutiny.

Prosecutors echoed the need for external oversight that has reverberated across cases with officer-involved shootings. "Who polices the police when they do wrong?," lead prosecuting attorney Adren Harris asked the jury on Monday. "You," he said.