Some See National Implications in Looming Manslaughter Trial of White Cop

The case of a while police officer killing an unarmed black man in Charlotte, N.C., in September 2013 reignites a broader discussion of police violence involving people of color throughout the country, legal experts say.

“The recent deaths of several African-American men following interactions with police, and the challenge of holding the officers who killed them responsible, have compelled us to express our concerns regarding the criminal justice system nationally and within the state of North Carolina,” the N.C. Public Defenders said in a recent statement.

“While we are encouraged by the outcry and conversation that has resulted from these tragedies and the efforts being made by many to advocate for necessary reforms, the reality is that people of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by our criminal justice system,” the attorneys said. “The most compelling and disturbing feature of this country’s criminal and juvenile justice system is its disparate impact on people of color. While multiple factors contribute to this disparity, a significant factor is implicit and explicit racial bias.”

Unlike the recent cases in which grand juries declined to indict white police officers who killed unarmed black men in Missouri and New York City, Officer Randall Kerrick, a Charlotte Mecklenburg police officer, faces a charge of voluntary manslaughter in the 2013 shooting death of young unarmed black man.

Kerrick, 28, is accused of killing Jonathan Ferrell, 24, on Sept. 14, 2013. A Mecklenburg County grand jury initially declined to indict Kerrick on the voluntary manslaughter charge in connection with Ferrell's death.

However, the N.C. Attorney's General office submitted the case to a second Mecklenburg County grand jury, which indicted Kerrick on Jan. 27, 2014. Kerrick appeared in Mecklenburg District Court in mid-December for a brief hearing.

Kerrick is scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 5. Kerrick is free on $50,000 bond and is on administrative leave from his job.

The incident leading to the charge against Kerrick began shortly after 2:30 am when Ferrell wrecked his car on Ready Creek Road in Charlotte. According to news reports, Ferrell went to the first house he saw on the road.

Ferrell, a former football player at Florida A&M University, then banged on the door of Sarah McCartney, a wife and mother of a 1-year-old baby who was home alone, according to news reports. McCartney opened, looked at Ferrell and then slammed the door. She then called 911 and told a dispatcher that a man was trying to break in and rob her.

Minutes later, officers were called to the scene while Ferrell walked down the road trying to get help elsewhere. Kerrick and two other officers arrived on the scene, and he eventually confronted Ferrell. A spokesman for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department initially told reporters that Ferrell ran toward Kerrick and the other officers.

One of the officers, not Kerrick, then fired a Taser at Ferrell. Then seconds later, Kerrick fired 12 shots at Ferrell, hitting him eights times in the chest, once in the abdomen and once in the arm, according to news reports. Officials called the shooting unlawful and charged Kerrick with voluntary manslaughter.

“The evidence revealed that Mr. Ferrell did advance on Officer Kerrick and the investigation showed that the subsequent shooting of Mr. Ferrell was excessive,” police said in a statement released Sept. 14, 2013, to the news media. “Our investigation has shown that Officer Kerrick did not have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter.”

Immediately after the Ferrell's death, Kerrick said he was following police training. His attorneys called the shooting tragic but justified. Ferrell's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Kerrick, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the city of Charlotte.

The debate regarding policing in the United States intensified last month when two New York City police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were shot and killed in their patrol car by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a black man whom authorities described as mentally unstable. In the wake of those officers' deaths, pro-police rallies have happened in several cities with organizers saying that the public must support all police officers who perform dangerous duties every day.

Joe Kuhns, an associate professor in the department of criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said he expects the officers who were also at the scene when Ferrell was shot will testify at Kerrick's trial.

“I suspect they will be important witnesses to the event,” Kuhns said, adding that Kerrick's arrest the same day that Ferrell was shot points to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police's decision to hold Kerrick accountable for his alleged actions.

If Kerrick is convicted, then his prosecution likely will appease the people of Charlotte and demonstrate that police officers there will be held responsible if they act inappropriately in their duties, Kuhns said. The events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island are not directly related to the Kerrick's case, he said.

However, the N.C. Public Defenders said that all of these cases are related.

“While disparate policing practices certainly impact the arrests of our clients, we cannot ignore the effects of race at every stage of the criminal justice process, to include charging determinations, grand jury procedures, bond determinations, plea negotiations, jury selection, and finally in the sentencing of our clients,” the attorneys said.

In December, the National Urban League issued a 10-point plan to reform police procedures in the United States in the wake of the controversial deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of some white officers.

Among the proposals, the Urban League is calling for the widespread use of body cameras by police officers and the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate cases of alleged police misconduct.

“The phenomenon we have seen in America since the announcement of the non-indictments of officers in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner is new to a generation, but not to the nation,” Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, said in a statement.

“Millions of Americans have now taken to the streets and to social media not because the problems that have caused the outrage just began yesterday, but because sometimes difficult circumstances present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring about historic change,” Morial said. “Now is that time.”