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Charlotte Police Shooting Underlines Divide Over Video Evidence

Mar 9, 2017
Originally published on March 11, 2017 8:40 am
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Each year, an estimated 1,000 people are killed by police in the U.S., and we say estimated because no one keeps an official record. Now, most of those shootings are ruled justified. A criminologist who tracks these cases says that since 2005, only 79 police officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter as a result of an on-duty shooting.


A guilty verdict from a jury is even more rare. In the last 12 years, just 14 police officers have been found guilty by a jury for an on-duty shooting. From her podcast, Embedded, our co-host Kelly McEvers has the story of a police shooting in Charlotte, N.C.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Like many police shootings these days, a lot of what we know about this case comes from a video. Just a warning - it gets intense.


MCEVERS: It's a dash cam video. Watching it is like you were the cop driving fast around 2 in the morning.



MCEVERS: And here's what we know. A white woman has called 911 and said a black man is trying to break into her house. The dispatcher says the suspect has tried to kick in the woman's door.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Kicked through the door.

MCEVERS: The officer pulls up near the woman's house. His headlights shine on a black man in a green shirt and light-colored pants. His name is Jonathan Ferrell. He used to play college football. On the night of this video, he was out late with friends and crashed his car in the woods.

In the video, at first, you see Jonathan Ferrell walking. Then you see both his hands go to his waist like he might be pulling up his pants. Then you see a red dot on his chest. We later learn it's from another officer's Taser. Then Jonathan Ferrell starts to run and runs right off camera, so now all that's left is audio. You hear a third officer, Randall Wes Kerrick, who is white, tell Jonathan Ferrell to stop...


RANDALL KERRICK: Get on the ground. Get on the ground.

MCEVERS: ...And then hear this.


MCEVERS: Twelve gunshots - 10 of them hit Jonathan Ferrell.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible).

MCEVERS: Officers handcuff him, tell him not to move.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Don't move. Don't move.

MCEVERS: And then he dies.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You guys shot first.

MCEVERS: The video ultimately leads investigators to agree this shooting was not justified, mainly because Jonathan Ferrell was unarmed. Officer Wes Kerrick is charged with voluntary manslaughter, and the case goes to trial nearly two years later. The prosecution says Jonathan Ferrell got in a car wreck that night and was looking for help at the door of the woman who later called 911. And when he saw that Taser beam on his chest, he was trying to run away from the cops. The defense says he was trying to break into the woman's house and that when he saw those Taser beams, he was charging at the cops. After 11 days, the jury goes to deliberate.

BRUCE RAFFE: We were six to six at one point.

MCEVERS: Bruce Raffe was the foreman of the jury. He says they watched the video several times at the trial and again in deliberations.

RAFFE: We all saw the same thing, but there were six opinions one way. There were six another. And we were sitting in that jury deliberation room. It was no bigger than this living room. It's hot. We're arguing. It's going nowhere. And so the more it went on - this went on for days.

MCEVERS: Raffe, who is white, says he knew from the very beginning of the trial he would vote to acquit Officer West Kerrick because here's what he thought about Jonathan Ferrell when he saw that video.

RAFFE: A young man, distraught, disheveled, confused, angry, if you will, making a very aggressive move towards these police officers after disobeying commands. He had many choices in this video, and it was clear from the very first time I viewed it. Stop. Sit down. Put your hands up. Do any of those things, other than what you chose to do, which was to charge Officer Kerrick.

MCEVERS: So Raffe convinces two more jurors to side with him. That means eight jurors - most of them white - want to acquit Officer Wes Kerrick. And four jurors - most of them people of color - say they want to convict Kerrick. Bruce Raffe says his decision was not about race. He says if his own son did what Jonathan Ferrell did, he would expect him to be shot, too. Moses Wilson, who is black, was on the other side. He says it was unfair the defense tried to put Jonathan Ferrell on trial.

MOSES WILSON: This is an old trick from defense attorneys. He wasn't supposed to be here. He might have had a few drinks where he was. The police responded to what he caused. This was early in the morning. This was far from where he lived. This was this, this was that, which caused me at the end to write on the board - just what did he do to deserve to be shot so many times? And the defense for Kerrick could not come up with anything that he had done.

MCEVERS: Moses Wilson says he thinks some people voted the way they did because of their racial biases.

WILSON: That is the deepest and the darkest of reasons, and it will haunt whoever did it for the rest of their lives. That's the truth.

MCEVERS: I want to know what it felt like to be sitting in that jury room, so sure of your version of what happened when the person next to you thinks exactly the opposite thing.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The opposite thing based on the same set...

MCEVERS: So I asked Bruce Raffe about this.

RAFFE: I'm wondering what they're not seeing, what they didn't hear. Why aren't they siding with me on this decision? And I feel very confident that the decision I was making and the decisions that I was formulating to know that Officer Kerrick was not guilty - I had a hard time understanding why others didn't.

MCEVERS: So after three days of trying, the jury deadlocks 8-4.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: A judge declares a mistrial in a high-profile police shooting.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: A mistrial declared in the case of a police shooting in North Carolina after the jury deadlocks.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Jonathan Ferrell's family stood outside of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse asking the state to consider retrying Kerrick's case.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Let's get justice. Jonathan was an innocent bystander.

MCEVERS: But the prosecution decides not to retry the case. Officer Kerrick later settles with the city for back pay, and as part of that settlement, he resigns from the police department. What we still wanted to know is this - how can people see the same thing and think so differently? And what does that mean will happen in other cases like these? So we put these questions to a lawyer named Charles Monnett. He represented Jonathan Ferrell's family in a civil case against the city of Charlotte.

CHARLES MONNETT: Confirmation bias is what that's called. People see what they want to see. And they take their previous beliefs, and they use the film to confirm whatever they are. Almost no one can see those videos from a neutral perspective.

MCEVERS: But he says the video could have been used better by the prosecution in the trial. What he did when he deposed two other police officers who were there that night for the civil case, he took their statements about what happened and compared them to the video frame-by-frame. We read this in the depositions. What he was able to show was there were discrepancies between what they said happened and what actually happens on the video. In the end, the city settled Monnett's case and paid the Ferrell family $2.25 million.



MCEVERS: Then last fall, another black man is shot and killed by police in Charlotte. Protests go on for days. They get really intense. Police are injured. One protester's shot. Protesters say the name of the man who was killed, Keith Lamont Scott. They say another name, too - Jonathan Ferrell. One Charlotte-based journalist tells us his case is a wound that has never healed.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Being black is not a crime.

MCEVERS: But as unsatisfying as the final result of the Jonathan Ferrell case might have been for some people, the video did move the needle just a little. The case would never have gone to trial if it hadn't been for the video. Wes Kerrick is no longer a police officer. Before we had these videos, one criminologist told us the dead man couldn't talk. Now, in some ways, he can.

SIEGEL: That's our co-host Kelly McEvers. Her podcast is Embedded. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.