The Long Legacy of Charlotte’s Graham Case

‘More Perfect’ podcast focuses on landmark police case



A sketch of the 2013 encounter between former Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall Kerrick and Jonathan Ferrell, presented as evidence in Kerrick’s 2015 manslaughter trial that ended in a hung jury.

Greg Lacour

The latest episode of the podcast More Perfect, a fascinating Radiolab spinoff, might as well carry a Charlotte dateline. More Perfect tells the stories behind pivotal U.S. Supreme Court cases and why they matter. The episode that dropped last week, “Mr. Graham and the Reasonable Man,” dives into the backstory and complications of the famous Graham v. Connor case that in 1989 established the standard for judging whether police use of force is “objectively reasonable.” That’s the “reasonable” part of the episode title. “Mr. Graham” was Dethorne Graham, a Charlotte man injured in 1984 by police officers who suspected, wrongly, that he had robbed a convenience store on West Boulevard.

I wrote about the case six months ago, not long after the jury acquittal of the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile in Minnesota, for a couple of reasons: I realized most people—especially those horrified at police shootings of unarmed black people that go unpunished—simply didn’t know what the standard was, or that it was enshrined in the law. (Police know it intimately. One of the more enlightening moments of the podcast comes when NPR’s Kelly McEvers says cops view Graham as journalists see the First Amendment.)

The second reason was that I didn’t realize the underlying case was from Charlotte. I was taken aback when a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police training lieutenant mentioned it almost in passing during a citizens’ workshop I attended this spring. The story of the case itself is riveting enough, and with an unusual twist: Graham actually won at the Supreme Court, which imposed what it thought was a less stringent burden on plaintiffs who alleged use of force against police. (The old standard required plaintiffs to prove police acted with malicious intent, which is effectively impossible.) The high court, as Graham had wanted, sent the case back for retrial in federal District Court, where Graham lost again under the new standard.

But the tension in the episode really ramps up when the podcast begins exploring another, far better known police use of force case—former CMPD officer Randall Kerrick’s fatal 2013 shooting of Jonathan Ferrell. The case ended in a hung jury after a trial in August 2015, and the Observer followed up with a story headlined, “Jurors agreed race wasn’t an issue in Kerrick trial.” McEvers, working with the More Perfect producers, speaks with a couple of the same jurors the paper talked to. But her conclusion is more nuanced: Some jurors may well have thought race wasn’t a factor without acknowledging their own inherent prejudice.

The foreman, Bruce Raffe, one of the eight jurors who voted to acquit Kerrick of manslaughter, viewed his shooting of Ferrell as a matter of choices: not Kerrick’s, but Ferrell’s. Raffe referred to the dashboard camera video presented at trial, which showed Ferrell running toward the police car, then turning left—in the direction of Kerrick, although it’s never been clear what Ferrell, who was unarmed, intended to do.

No matter, Raffe told McEvers: “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.’ There’s no other way around what I saw, and I kept coming back to that.”

Moses Wilson, one of the four jurors who voted to convict, parries Raffe’s argument with four words, referring to Ferrell:

“What did he do?”

Wilson emphasizes the last word, setting him apart from Raffe, who ticked off all the things Ferrell didn’t do. So what did he do to warrant getting shot 10 times? He ran. Maybe he intended to assault Kerrick. Maybe he didn’t. We’ll never know, and the law, rightly or wrongly, allows police officers to kill someone if they have “objective reason” to believe they or others’ lives are in danger.

Which is, perhaps, the problem. I don’t mean to relitigate the Kerrick trial, only to point out that the ambiguity is something that will continue to seep into every police shooting case we see, here or anywhere else. What started as a way to inject sober-minded objectivity into a perennial question—under what circumstances can a police officer use deadly force?—ended up tossing the entire discussion into even deeper murk. The people the system uses to gauge “objectivity” and “reasonableness” aren’t necessarily models of sweet reason themselves.

That’s one reason why the implicit bias training that CMPD officers have undertaken since last year, aimed at helping officers confront their unconscious prejudices, is such a praiseworthy effort. We all could use some self-examination on that front. “That’s the thing,” McEvers says toward the end of the episode. “If you’re white, are you more likely to say, ‘Yes, that was reasonable, because he’s white, and he’s afraid of a black man’? Like, that is the question.” The answer depends on the lens through which each of us sees the world, which makes objectivity a hard thing to find when it’s needed most.

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