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Judge blocks release of NC fatal police shooting video

Senior Deputy Attorney General James Coman now has final say on when or if the public sees the video

By Michael Gordon
The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A Mecklenburg County judge on Thursday effectively blocked release of the video from a controversial police shooting by giving control of the footage to the state prosecutor handling the case.

The so-called "dash-cam video" from one of the police cars at the shooting scene remains a vital piece of evidence in the case against Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick. He is charged with voluntary manslaughter in connection with the Sept. 14 shooting death of Jonathon Ferrell, who was unarmed.

Senior Deputy Attorney General James Coman now has final say on when or if the public sees the video, according to a consent order signed by Superior Court Judge Richard Boner. The agreement — involving Coman, Kerrick's defense attorneys and CMPD — overrides a state law that gives Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee authority to release the video if it is needed to maintain public confidence.

Judge Boner said Ferrell's death has already drawn an excessive amount of media attention.

"This case should be decided in a courtroom and not in the pages of the Charlotte Observer," he said.

He then signed a court order declaring that no "investigative material shall be released to the public except through the N.C. Attorney General's office, as they deem appropriate."

Ferrell's family, along with the Observer and other media, had asked that the video be released. Up to now, police and city officials have refused, saying that the footage remains part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

Coman, however, told the court that he received a Saturday morning call from "a reliable source who indicated there was a high probability that the dash-cam video would be released."

He said he called Kerrick's defense team of George Laughrun and Michael Greene, then Boner, to share what he had heard. That led to a temporary restraining order signed later in the day by another judge, which brought all sides before Boner on Thursday.

Attorneys for the city manager's office and police maintain that there were no plans by either group to make the video public. City Attorney Bob Hagemann said Wednesday that the city's normal practice is to defer to prosecutors on the handling of all evidence.

In a filing with the court, police attorneys Mark Newbold and Judith Emken, say the city and CMPD "have steadfastly refused to release it to the media, the public, or representatives of the deceased's family."

The agreement approved by Boner allows police to release information that state law considers public record or to meet a court order. But CMPD is specifically prohibited from releasing the dash-cam video.

Preserving a fair trial
Kerrick, 27, shot Ferrell 10 times from close range during a middle-of-the-night confrontation in a northeast Mecklenburg neighborhood. Ferrell had wrecked his car and knocked at a nearby house for help. A woman in the house called 911, thinking Ferrell was trying to break in.

Ferrell, 24, was a Johnson C. Smith University student and former college football player.

The video reportedly captures the sequence of events leading up to the shooting, but not the shooting itself.

Ferrell's family and Kerrick's lawyers have seen the footage but do not have copies. They disagree over whether it proves the shooting was justified. Police Chief Rodney Monroe has said the video clearly shows that Ferrell was not carrying a weapon and that Kerrick used excessive force.

Kerrick, an officer for three years, is the first Charlotte police officer charged in connection with an on-duty shooting in at least 30 years. He is out on bond.

Chris Chestnut, an attorney for Kerrick's family, said police have promised them that the video would be released.

But Coman and Laughrun argued in court that such a move could undermine Kerrick's right to a fair trial and make it difficult to find unbiased jurors.

Laughrun said the prosecution should "speak with one voice ... Jim Coman's."

Coman said he would be making the same arguments if Ferrell were on trial.

Boner, the county's senior Superior Court judge, admonished police "to hold down the amount of comments made to the media in this case." Otherwise, he said, the trial may be forced to move to another county.

Coman is one of the state's best-known prosecutors. The son of a New Jersey police chief, he ran the State Bureau of Investigation for former Gov. Mike Easley and took over prosecution of the Duke lacrosse team rape case from disgraced Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong. After the Coman-led investigation, all charges against the team members were dropped.

Coman now leads special prosecutions around the state. His office took over the Kerrick case after Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray, a former law partner of Kerrick's attorneys, stepped aside.

Coman declined comment as he left the courtroom.

Copyright 2013 The Charlotte Observer

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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