CHARLOTTE - Three times since a police officer fired 10 bullets into her son, Jonathan, in September, Georgia Ferrell has made the long journey from the family home in Tallahassee, Fla. Each time, she sought to understand why her son, a former Florida A&M football star and homebody who wanted to take his mother with him to the junior prom, was gunned down when he was asking for help.
On Monday, she got closer to her answers. A grand jury indicted Officer William Kerrick, 28, who joined the city’s animal control division in 2010 as a pathway to a police job, on a charge of voluntary manslaughter. He was the first Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer charged in a fatal shooting in more than 30 years.
Ferrell said one thought came into her head when her attorneys told her Monday afternoon that the Mecklenburg County grand jury had indicted Kerrick: “God’s will must be done.”
It was the second time a grand jury had heard the case. The first panel, which convened a week ago, did not indict the officer but suggested instead that prosecutors come back with a lesser charge. Community outrage was strong. Roy Cooper, the attorney general and a likely Democratic candidate for governor, decided to present the case again, this time with four witness instead of two, and to a full panel of 18 jurors instead of 14.
Although the proceedings are secret, attorneys for the family said there is a probability that the jurors saw footage of the shooting taken from a patrol car that night - something the family has not been allowed to view.
What they saw, according to people who have seen the video, was a 24-year-old man who was approaching officers with his hands outstretched. In the confusion, it is difficult to discern whether the bullets or commands from the officers came first. Either way, according to one attorney who has seen the video, there was little time for Jonathan Ferrell to respond.
“In some of these cases of excessive force you can say, ‘Yeah, but he shouldn’t have been there in the first place’ or ‘He was doing something he shouldn’t have,’” said Charles Monnett, an attorney in Charlotte, who is representing the family. “There is no ‘but’ in this case. It’s just a tragic case.”
Attorneys for Kerrick, however, said the outrage was misplaced.
“Those outraged have simply not heard all of the facts and hasten to a position,” his attorneys, Michael J. Greene and George V. Laughrun II, said in a statement. “The true outrage of this community should be at the attorney general’s complete disregard of the original findings of our first grand jury.”
Jonathan Ferrell, who was working two retail jobs, had recently moved to the Charlotte area to join his fiancée and save money to go back to school.
Just after 2 a.m. on Sept. 14, Ferrell was dropping off a work colleague in Bradfield Farm, a subdivision with tennis courts and a swimming pool 17 miles east of downtown Charlotte.
On a particularly dark stretch of road, Ferrell drove down an embankment. The car was so damaged he had to kick out the rear window to free himself.
Unable to find his cellphone, he stumbled to the first house he found and knocked, according to the lawsuit and police reports. Inside, a white woman home alone with her infant daughter panicked and called 911. A black man, she said, was trying to break in.
Three officers arrived 11 minutes later. Ferrell had left the house and was on a street that led to the community pool. Rodney Monroe, chief of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, said Ferrell charged toward the officers and refused orders to stop. One officer fired a Taser, which missed its target.
Kerrick then fired 12 shots, 10 of which hit Ferrell. Autopsy results included in the lawsuit show the bullets entered his body and traveled downward, which the family claims to show Ferrell was already on his knees or laying on the ground when he was shot. Officers then handcuffed him.
Toxicology reports showed Ferrell had caffeine, nicotine and an alcohol level that was well below the legal limit in his system.
The shooting, in which the officer was white and the victim was black, has raised debate in many circles about the place where race and excessive force intersect. But the Ferrell family thus far has declined to make the case part of a broader picture.
“We will wait on all that,” said his younger brother, William, who grew up so close to Ferrell that he left a prime scholarship at the University of Mississippi so he could play football with his older brother in Florida.
The family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, naming the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, Kerrick and Monroe, the police chief.
Chris Chestnut, a family attorney based in Atlanta, hopes the suit will force the department to provide more information about the shooting, including the police video, and prompt improvements in a department that has a long history of citizen complaints about the use of excessive force.
Charlotte officers have killed at least five people in the past 13 months, according to the suit.
For William Ferrell, steady vigilance of the case is a way to keep alive the spirit of his older brother, who cooked ribs and chocolate cake for his buddies and inevitably rooted for the underdog, following the hapless Detroit Lions when they were in the NFL’s cellar. He said the two did nearly everything together, singing in the church choir and playing football.
Now, showing up in Charlotte for every important turn in trial that could begin by the end of the year is his way of honoring him, he said.
“It’s easy to represent somebody who is so good,” he said. “I know he would do the same for me.”