Kerrick, Ferrell, and the Consequences of Panic

How 'reasonable' can any of us be when the adrenaline kicks in?
Greg Lacour
A sketch of Randall Kerrick's shooting of Jonathan Ferrell, presented as evidence in Kerrick's manslaughter trial.

The Randall Kerrick manslaughter case went to the jury Tuesday afternoon. We’re still awaiting a verdict here on Friday morning. Regardless of the outcome, or of any changes in police training that may emerge from it, Kerrick’s trial for shooting and killing Jonathan Ferrell in September 2013 illustrates more than anything the destructive effects of panic.

The trial, of course, has highlighted issues of race, justice, and police use of force. But panic is the conductive cable that runs through the entire case. After his car accident, Ferrell chose to pound on a stranger’s door at 2:30 a.m. when a wiser course of action would have been to continue to look for his cell phone or at least head back toward the home of Max Funderburke, the friend he’d just dropped off nearby.

Sarah McCartney, the woman on whose door Ferrell pounded, called 911 in a state of hysteria—and sustained the hysteria for roughly 20 minutes, leading police to expect a dangerous, possibly armed suspect. McCartney didn’t stop to consider that home invaders generally don’t knock on the door or continue to hang around when an alarm blares.

And then, finally, there’s Kerrick himself, a cop for only two years, whose emotional state was so distorted, he testified last week, that he thought he had fired four to six shots at Ferrell and had to be told afterwards that he’d fired 12, 10 of which had hit. (And only after the 12 shots did Kerrick order, twice and absurdly, “Don’t move!”)

It’s not fair to blame any of the three for reacting the way they did. Who knows how any of us might react in any stressful situation? Ferrell was new in town, alone on a dark road in the middle of the night, upset, possibly disoriented. McCartney was shocked to open the door and see a large man who wasn’t, as she’d expected, her husband; she also had a young child to protect. Kerrick, as he kept insisting during his testimony, had no way of knowing whether Ferrell was armed.

Scientists are still trying to determine exactly what cocktail of brain chemicals traveling through which circuits causes panic, mainly in people who suffer from chronic panic or anxiety attacks; some research indicates the cause may be overstimulation of a particular area of the midbrain that “provokes the body’s defensive responses, such as freezing or running,” according to Scientific American. That’s potentially useful in treating panic disorder. But what about the rest of us—people who don’t suffer from a psychological condition but are prone, like any animal, to feel the adrenaline rush and impairment of judgment that comes from a perceived threat to life and limb?

That’s the central paradox of this case, the one jurors are likely struggling with at this moment. If jurors decide Kerrick could have reasonably believed his or others’ lives were in jeopardy when he shot and killed Ferrell, they should acquit him. But how “reasonable” could Kerrick—could anyone—be in an emotional state that tells him he’s about to die?

Some necessary changes will likely emerge from this case—more consistent police training on use of force, for example, and a stronger awareness by patrol cops that they need to exercise as much discretion as possible during a call. But even the best-trained police officers panic. We all do. Training can mitigate but not eliminate it. That may be the most troubling conclusion from a troubling case: The root of the problem, like a cold case, is unsolvable.

Categories: By Greg Lacour, The Buzz