‘Unconscious bias’ led to police shooting of ex-FAMU football player, attorney says

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This combination of undated photos provided by Florida A&M University and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police shows Jonathan Ferrell, left, and police officer Randall Kerrick. Ferrell, 24, was shot and killed by Kerrick in Charlotte, N.C. early Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. Hours after the shooting, the department made a rare move: It charged the officer with voluntary manslaughter. (AP Photo/Florida A&M University, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police)

 

by Eliott C. McLaughlin

(CNN) — A former Florida A&M football player fatally shot by police in Charlotte, North Carolina, was clearly seeking help after a car wreck — and video from the squad car’s dashboard camera will prove it, an attorney for the man’s family said Wednesday.

Officer Randall Kerrick shot the unarmed Jonathan Ferrell, 24, last month after a woman — home alone with her 1-year-old child — called 911 and reported that someone was trying to break down her front door.

Ferrell had wrecked his car down the street and had simply gone to the nearest home seeking help, family attorney Chris Chestnut said.

“I completely understand her situation. She’s at home by herself, 2 in the morning, with a baby. I completely understand that she was frightened,” Chestnut said. “But had she taken the time to just speak through the door and find out what was going on, rather than say, ‘He’s trying to rob me’ or ‘He’s trying to beat down the door,’ I think she would’ve had a different understanding.”

The woman initially opened the door, Chestnut said, questioning why she would report a home invasion. Had Ferrell been an intruder, he would have burst into her home when she opened the door, he said.

But the attorney was quick to say he wasn’t judging the woman or her actions. Still, he said, it was “unconscious bias” that led to Ferrell’s death.

According to the 911 tape, the woman told a dispatcher, “I need help!”

“There’s a guy breaking in my front door,” she continued. “He’s trying to kick it down.”

Her reaction was understandable, Chestnut said, but Kerrick’s was not.

“The onus isn’t on the homeowner. The onus really here is on the officer, because it’s the officer’s job. He’s a trained professional. She’s a citizen. She can panic. An officer cannot,” Chestnut said.

Kerrick was charged with felony voluntary manslaughter, meaning he is accused of either using excessive force in self-defense or shooting Ferrell without the intent to kill him.

Kerrick turned himself in September 14, the day of the shooting, and was released the following day on $50,000 bond.

“We are confident that at the resolution of this case, it will be found that Officer Kerrick’s actions were justified on the night in question,” his attorney, Michael Greene, said.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department did not concur, releasing a statement calling the shooting unlawful.

“The evidence revealed that Mr. Ferrell did advance on Officer Kerrick and the investigation showed that the subsequent shooting of Mr. Ferrell was excessive,” police said in a statement the day of the shooting. “Our investigation has shown that Officer Kerrick did not have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter.”

The statement further said, “It has devastated a family as well as caused a great deal of sadness and anxiety in our organization.”

Police used the words “charged,” “ran” and “advanced” in describing Ferrell’s interaction with police. But Chestnut said the young man merely walked “briskly” toward them and surmised that Ferrell was relieved police had arrived to help him.

An officer tried to subdue Ferrell with a stun gun but was “unsuccessful,” police have said. Kerrick opened fire after that.

A video from a dashboard camera will show Kerrick committed “cold-blooded murder,” Chestnut said, demanding that the tape be released to the public.

“The public should see the video … because it tells the story better than anyone,” he said.

About a block away from the shooting, Ferrell’s car was wrecked so severely that “he was lucky to have survived,” Chestnut said. Police told local media that Ferrell had to crawl out the back window of the vehicle.

Describing the incident allegedly caught by the dashboard camera, Chestnut said Ferrell was on the sidewalk when police arrived. Ferrell walked toward them, he said.

“Even if they suspected that he was robbing the house from the 911 call, most robbers run the other way when law enforcement comes,” the attorney said.

Two lasers hit Ferrell’s chest before the 24-year-old raised his hands, “like, wait,” Chestnut said, further describing the tape. It wasn’t clear if the laser were sights from the stun gun or a firearm.

Without any verbal warning from police, four shots were fired, then there was a pause before six more gunshots, and another pause before the final two rounds, the attorney said. Ten of those 12 bullets hit Ferrell, killing him instantly, Chestnut said.

“That’s not a scared officer. That’s someone intending to kill,” he said, saying he believes a jury will agree, as it’s “unprecedented” for police to arrest one of their own so swiftly after a shooting.

Family members have said Ferrell was a happy, outgoing guy, who loved Winnie the Pooh as a child.

The former gymnast, football player and FAMU chemistry major was working two jobs at the time of the shooting, his mother, Georgia, has said.

His fiancee, Cache Heidel, told CNN on Wednesday that Ferrell had been out with friends from one of those jobs, at Best Buy, the night he was shot.

Heidel described Ferrell as someone who was always joking and finding ways to make people smile. His demeanor was so gentle and caring, she said, that she nicknamed him “Sweets.”

“He’s always a joy to be around. He cared so much for other people, more so than himself,” she said.

She said she hopes Kerrick is convicted and that her fiance’s death will spur dialogue across the nation.

“That is a hope I have, that his death will resound for a country that prides itself on being diverse and inclusive and accepting everyone for who they are,” she said.

Chestnut, who said the family would file a civil suit, also expressed hope that the release of the police video would yield a teachable moment.

“There are other police departments, there are other officers, there are other people who can learn from this video, especially in the day of ‘stand your ground,’” the lawyer said.

CNN’s Chris Cuomo contributed to this report.

 

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