Ambiguity Reigns

Why Randall Kerrick's guilt in the death of Jonathan Ferrell will probably never be resolved
Greg Lacour
The Ferrell family speaks to reporters Friday after the Randall Kerrick trial ended in a hung jury.

As civil unrest goes, the post-Randall Kerrick trial demonstrations in uptown Charlotte last night didn’t add up to much: a lot of yelling, some traffic blocked on a Friday night, some disruption of public transit, and a few tense moments outside BB&T Ballpark, but nothing approaching Baltimore or Ferguson. Two officers were assaulted, and some briefly had rocks thrown at them; police made two arrests. No one was hurt. The only property damage appeared to be a mangled section of gate outside the Transit Center.

It was a strange and confused scene of aimless wandering, hurled threats and insults, stone-faced cops, and absolutely no resolution, which was what you might expect after a month-long trial that ended with the fizzle of a hung jury. What does Charlotte learn from the Kerrick case? Where, exactly, does the city go from here? The answer is as murky as the case itself.

One thing I think we can expect, though—the state will not retry the case. There’s no reason to expect that another jury reviewing the same evidence will be able to reach a verdict, especially since eight of the 12 jurors reportedly wanted to acquit. When you strip the case down to its basic facts, it’s not hard to see why.

Realistically, jurors needed two things to render a verdict, neither of which they got: a clear, unambiguous visual record of Kerrick’s actual encounter with Jonathan Ferrell; and equally clear testimony on whether Kerrick’s shooting of Ferrell constituted excessive force.

The only dashcam video shows Ferrell running off screen after Officer Thornell Little’s failed attempt to Tase him. Did Ferrell, as Kerrick swore, try to take his gun? Was he actually charging at Kerrick or just running to avoid the Taser? Could Kerrick have realistically escaped, or punched or kicked Ferrell to subdue him? Jurors had no way of knowing. Neither do we.

On the crucial excessive-force question, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Capt. Mike Campagna, the department’s training director, said it was; Dave Cloutier, an expert for the defense, said it wasn’t. No wonder the jury couldn’t reach a verdict. I’m honestly surprised, given the ambiguity, that Kerrick didn’t win an outright acquittal.

And that’s another unsavory bite to have to swallow today. All along, the Kerrick case’s significance grew because of police shootings of unarmed black men in other American cities—”unfolded against the backdrop of” was the preferred phrase—and the growing Black Lives Matter movement that evolved after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. In one sense, the social and journalistic one, there was no way to talk about the Kerrick case without considering where it stood in relation to the others.

But in the legal sense, it’s irresponsible to tie the Charlotte shooting to the others; what happened in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Staten Island had nothing to do with this. It’s possible, in other words, to believe strongly that #BlackLivesMatter, and accept that police are often overaggressive against black people, and still understand that the State of North Carolina failed to prove its case against Randall Kerrick beyond a reasonable doubt.

None of this makes anyone happy. The Ferrell family, although it won a civil settlement against the city, has to live with the knowledge that the man who pumped 10 bullets into their loved one will likely not see a day behind bars. Kerrick, who seems to genuinely believe he did nothing wrong, will almost certainly never work as a police officer again, and will always be a target for rage from people who see him as a murderer.

Perhaps that’s why what we saw on the streets of uptown Charlotte last night wasn’t outrage as much as frustration—over the death of another young black man, sure, but also because this case failed to deliver what everyone expects from a criminal proceeding: resolution. Barring something extraordinary emerging over the coming weeks or months, it’s pretty clear that we’re not going to get it.