By Michael Gordon
The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A Mecklenburg County judge will decide Thursday who controls a controversial video that captures events leading up to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer's fatal shooting last month of an unarmed man.
Both sides in the manslaughter case against Officer Randall Kerrick are trying to stop the release of the footage, saying such a move could compromise Kerrick's right to a fair trial and make it more difficult to find impartial juries to hear his case.
State law gives the city manager authority to release the video, if he believes it is essential to maintaining public confidence in local government. Over the weekend, lawyers for the prosecution and defense in the Kerrick case went to court to block that power, a move that surprised the city and the victim's family.
Kerrick, 27, has been charged with voluntary manslaughter in the Sept. 14 shooting death of Jonathon Ferrell, a Johnson C. Smith University student and a former college football player.
Police say Ferrell, 24, was shot 10 times at close range.
Kerrick is the first police officer charged in connection with an on-duty shooting in at least 30 years. He was arrested after a police investigation, which included video from a camera inside one of the police cars at the scene.
The so-called "dash-cam" video has been shown to Ferrell's family and Kerrick's attorneys. Both sides disagree over whether it shows the shooting was justified.
Police already have released a 911 call connected to the case, as well as portions of recorded conversations between dispatchers and officers before and after the shooting.
Chris Chestnut, the attorney for Ferrell's family, said Wednesday that police promised the family they would release the video but have failed to do so. Charlotte area media, including the Observer, has also asked police to make the video public.
Now, that decision may no longer be in city hands.
Over the weekend, Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell signed a temporary restraining order blocking any release of the video by the city. The order came at the request of Kerrick attorneys George Laughrun and Michael Greene, along with Senior Deputy Attorney General James Coman, whose office is prosecuting the case.
They asked that the video and any other evidence be placed under Coman's control. On Thursday, they'll call on Superior Court Judge Richard Boner to extend that order.
In their motion to the court last weekend, the defense attorneys and Coman said they feared that the city, through City Manager Ron Carlee or Police Chief Rodney Monroe, "is attempting to release the substance of the dash-cam video to the public."
On Wednesday, City Attorney Bob Hagemann said that assertion caught the city off guard.
He said the city had no plans to release the video, and that its policy is to defer to prosecutors on how evidence in a criminal case is handled.
Hagemann acknowledged that internal discussions about releasing the Ferrell video had taken place. But he said they were aimed solely at briefing Carlee, who became manager in January, on how the city routinely approaches such cases.
"This is not a case of stopping us from something we were hell-bent on doing," Hagemann said. "We defer to the prosecutors. ...We'll comply with however the judge rules."
Carlee declined comment. On Sept. 19, in response to a question during a luncheon speech, Carlee said he expected the dash-cam video to be released at some point, but did not offer a specific time frame.
Coman could not be reached for comment. Laughrun declined to discuss the case.
The shooting occurred after Kerrick and two other officers answered an early morning 911 call from a neighborhood in northeast Mecklenburg County.
Kerrick, who had given a co-worker a ride home, wrecked his car at around 2 a.m. He walked to the nearest home and knocked on the door. A women inside said in her 911 call that a man she did not know had pounded on her door, then tried to force his way in.
Police say Ferrell, the brother of a Florida deputy sheriff, did not obey officers' orders to get on the ground. Instead, he continued walking toward them. After one of the officers fired his Taser at Ferrell and missed, Ferrell turned and ran straight into Kerrick, the least experienced officer at the scene.
Monroe said Kerrick fired most of his shots from a few feet away. He said the officer was charged because the video clearly showed that Ferrell was unarmed. Laughrun says the footage is not clear on that point.
Chestnut, who learned of Thursday's court hearing from the Observer, repeated his call that the public be given the chance to see them.
He accused police of a "covert attempt to create bias against Mr. Ferrell" by releasing the 911 call and "selectively edited portions" of the conversations between dispatchers and police on the night of the shooting.
"The dash-cam video is the most incriminating evidence against the officer," he said. "It is not prejudicial. This is factual evidence. They promised the family they would release it. Then they deliberately waited, and now they are hiding behind the fact that the case is managed by prosecutors."
"We don't even get the courtesy of learning about the hearing," he said. "This is deliberate, and our concerns and suspicions about the integrity of this investigation grow exponentially by the day."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
2013 The Charlotte Observer