In an eerie reminder of the 2012 Trayvon Martin case in Florida, North Carolina authorities last month rushed to charge a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed young black man acting threateningly.
But evidence suggests as in the Martin case, authorities may have overcharged the shooter, who claims self defense.
Also mirroring the Martin case, authorities came under intense pressure from civil rights groups to make an arrest. In this case, the shooter, officer Randall Kerrick, was jailed within hours of the Sept. 14 death of 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell in Charlotte, N.C.
But now, legal experts agree the swiftly filed voluntary manslaughter charges against the officer ultimately won’t hold up against mounting evidence supporting self defense; and an expected reduction in charges, or eventual acquittal, may only reignite racial tensions.
The case has police organizations worried racial politics is swaying internal decisions in cities across the country. They warn if street cops don’t feel the brass have their back in cases where they have to use lethal force, cops may feel inhibited in violent situations, putting their own lives in danger as well as those of citizens they’re sworn to protect.
Like the racially explosive Martin case – in which the unarmed black teen was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch captain – the Charlotte shooting appeared from initial reporting to be an open-and-shut case of excessive force.
As the victim’s family lawyers and sympathetic media told the story, Ferrell was shot repeatedly merely for running to police and asking them for help after crashing his car.
They claimed there was no warning from the three officers who responded to the scene before shots were fired, making it seem like a young black man was gunned down in cold blood.
Ferrell’s family attorney Christopher Chestnut insisted officer Kerrick opened fire on Ferrell before any commands or warnings were issued.
“There were no commands to ‘Stop, freeze, stop or I’ll shoot,’” Chestnut claimed.
“If Mr. Ferrell was not black or brown, wouldn’t they have asked him a few questions before showering him with bullets?” Chestnut added, suggesting bigotry played a role in the shooting.
“The officer is white, Mr. Ferrell is black,” he continued. “I think this is more of a reflection of where we are as a country.”
In fact, footage from a dashboard-mounted police camera shows officers commanded Ferrell at least three times to stop before Kerrick fired, but Ferrell continued to advance menacingly toward them. Another officer, Thornell Little, fired a Taser at Ferrell before Kerrick resorted to using his firearm.
“Orders were given by one of the officers as it relates to him stopping,” confirmed Charlotte Police Chief Rodney Monroe, who is African-American. “There were statements given of that nature.”
The NAACP, however, insists it was an “execution” of a black man.
“There is no evidence that shows Jonathan Ferrell should have been shot at all, but for officer Kerrick to shoot 12 times and striking Mr. Ferrell 10 times indicates more than a reflex, it smells more of hatred and rage, which shows that Mr. Kerrick was predisposed in killing a black man and did so with extreme prejudice,” said Rev. Kojo Nantambu, head of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP.
However, the video shows Kerrick first opened fire after Ferrell – who as a former Florida A&M University football player was much larger than Kerrick – charged him while ignoring commands and concealing his hands. Kerrick fired more rounds after Ferrell continued to move forward to the point where he made physical contact with the officer.
“His hands were not in the air,” said Kerrick attorney George Laughrun. At one point before the shooting, Laughrun added, “You see one of his hands partially behind his back, concealed, as he continued to advance.”
Ferrell may have been under the influence of controlled substances.
Witnesses reported to investigators that they saw Ferrell, who had dropped out of college, drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana in the hours before he crashed his car at an entrance to a suburban Charlotte neighborhood that Saturday at 2:30 a.m.
The police department has not released the results of the toxicology report.
At least one resident of the neighborhood reported Ferrell acting violently several minutes before the confrontation with police.
A 911 tape reveals a frantic call from homeowner Sarah McCartney, who was home alone with her 1-year-old son while her husband was traveling. Through tears, she reported Ferrell trying to kick in her front door in what she thought was an attempted robbery. Banging and yelling can be heard in the background.
“I need help!” McCartney can be heard pleading with the operator. “There’s a guy breaking into my front door, he’s trying to kick it down!”
The 911 tape refutes the initial narrative told by the NAACP and the media, who claimed an injured and stranded Ferrell rang McCartney’s doorbell seeking help only to have McCartney slam the door shut after seeing a black man.
“Why did the woman assume it was a robber?” Chestnut said.
“How could this white woman be so terrified by the mere sight of a black man – an injured one at that – that she couldn’t contain her fright long enough to even hear out his plea for help? Come on,” wrote Neil Drumming a black columnist for Salon.com.
Drumming said nothing excuses “her utter lack of empathy,” while failing to report that Ferrell tried to kick in her front door. The 911 tape indicates Ferrell wasn’t acting like a helpless man but a ferocious threat.
Chief Monroe confirmed that Ferrell started “banging on the door viciously.”
Nonetheless, black radio called McCartney a “racist b—-” guilty of a “hate crime.”
A number of black activists posted McCartney’s home address along with photos of her home on social media. As a result, a number of vehicles have driven by her house harassing her family. They have had to hire security for protection.
As in the Martin case, which triggered national outrage over perceived racial profiling, the narrative told by civil-rights activists and national media about the shooting death of Ferrell appears to be crumbling under the weight of facts and evidence.
Florida state authorities took over the Martin case after Sanford, Fla., police cleared George Zimmerman in the shooting, deciding he acted in self defense. After a jury later acquitted Zimmerman of manslaughter charges, authorities were criticized for overcharging Zimmerman.
Likewise, North Carolina state authorities have taken over the Ferrell case, which comes just months after the Zimmerman trial.
Experts say they’ve never seen a police officer charged so swiftly in a shooting. Normally investigations into police shootings take weeks, if not months.
Yet Kerrick was thrown in jail within hours, bypassing the usual lengthy interviews by internal affairs. Authorities said they wanted to avoid any “ambiguity” as outrage in the black community grew and the NAACP and other groups threatened protests.
Kerrick’s legal team will defend the officer under North Carolina’s “stand your ground” law, which allows police officers as well as citizens to use deadly force if they fear for their lives or someone else’s.
Legal experts say Kerrick may have a strong case, and that authorities may have been too quick to charge the 27-year-old officer.
Police unions say police departments feel pressure from Attorney General Eric Holder and groups like the NAACP to charge first and investigate later in such cases. That political pressure is having a “chilling effect” on law enforcement officers.
“What it does is it shakes their confidence, because most cops like to think their department has their back,” North Carolina Fraternal Order of Police President Randy Hagler said.
The NAACP wants the charges against Kerrick elevated to murder. Anger in the community may grow if the charges are actually reduced.