Jonathan Ferrell found himself in Bradfield Farms, a quiet community of single-family homes just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Ferrell had spent the evening at a bar on the northern edge of Charlotte with some co-workers from Best Buy, where he worked part time as a salesman, and had agreed to give one of them a ride home. Afterward, the 24-year-old Ferrell turned around the Toyota Camry he had borrowed from his fiancée and drove through the densely wooded neighborhood toward the freeway. It was after 2 a.m. and dark.
Ferrell ended up drifting into the woods alongside Reedy Creek Road, then down an embankment and into a cluster of trees. The wreck was so severe that Ferrell likely had to kick his way out through the back window (A toxicology report would later show no sign of drugs in Ferrell’s system). He emerged with neither his shoes nor his phone, which was lost somewhere in the crumpled vehicle, and began to look around for someone he could ask for help.
He had walked about a quarter of a mile when he saw a house. He approached the front door and started knocking. It was now about 2:30 a.m. The sound of Ferrell’s knocking awoke Sarah McCartney, a young woman who lived in the house with her husband and their infant. McCartney’s husband worked nights, so when Ferrell arrived at her doorstep, she and the baby were home alone. She opened the door expecting to see her husband. Instead, she saw someone she did not recognize, panicked, and shut the door as fast as she could.
McCartney had triggered her burglar alarm when she’d opened the door. Now she called 911. “I need help,” she told the dispatcher. “There’s a guy breaking in my front door. He’s trying to kick it down.” The man was black, she said, sobbing. He had a green shirt on, maybe khakis or jeans. The dispatcher told her that police were on their way.
McCartney watched from her window as Kerrick (the first officer to respond) looked around for the intruder. He didn’t see anyone, he would later testify, but heard noises—what sounded like screaming—coming from the direction of a nearby neighborhood pool. Little pulled up in his patrol car, and the two of them drove toward the noise. It was now 2:47 a.m.
As the officers turned onto the pool road, with Neal following behind them, Jonathan Ferrell emerged from the darkness. Kerrick and Little got out of their cars and watched for several seconds as their suspect walked toward them, the patrol car headlights illuminating his 6-foot, 225-pound frame. Little took out his Taser and aimed it at the approaching figure’s chest, causing bright red lights to appear on the front of his green T-shirt. Kerrick unholstered his firearm.
What happened next took about five seconds. Little fired his Taser but missed. Kerrick shouted, “Get on the ground!” three times in quick succession. When Ferrell did not comply, and continued to run, Kerrick opened fire. By the time he was satisfied he had neutralized the threat, Kerrick had discharged 12 rounds, 10 of which had struck their target. Jonathan Ferrell, who had been unarmed, died on the scene.
Kerrick said he saw Little fire at Ferrell with the Taser but concluded that it hadn’t worked. “He kept coming towards me. … I was giving him loud commands, but he wasn’t paying me a bit of attention. When he got within, say, 10 feet of me, I fired my duty weapon. It didn’t faze him. He kept coming toward me; I fired again.”
So far, this might sound like an all-too-familiar story. White police officer kills unarmed black man, defends his decision to use deadly force by saying he feared for his life, enjoys the vigorous backing of his department, and suffers few, if any, consequences for his actions. It’s a script that has played out repeatedly since Ferrell’s death in the fall of 2013, most prominently in the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and forced a national debate about police violence.
Less than 18 hours after Jonathan Ferrell died, CMPD served Randall Kerrick with an arrest warrant. That night, Kerrick was booked at Mecklenburg County Jail, a short walk from police headquarters. He was released from custody the following day, when he posted $50,000 bond. It was the first time in more than 30 years that an officer in Charlotte was being charged with a crime for killing someone.
The effort proved insufficient. After eight hours, the grand jury came back to Coman with a “no true bill,” meaning the jurors felt the prosecutor had failed to demonstrate there was probable cause to indict Kerrick on manslaughter charges. (In a handwritten note, members of the jury indicated to the prosecutors that they might have been willing to indict under a lesser charge.) “We are shocked and devastated,” a lawyer for the Ferrell family was quoted as saying at the time. “We’re highly concerned that a miscarriage of justice is imminent.” Kerrick faced three to 11 years in prison if convicted at trial.
The evidence against the White officer was mounting: the dashcam footage showed that the victim was unarmed; Also, neither of the other 2 officers at the scene, who had more policing experience than Kerrick, used their firearms in response to Ferrell’s behavior. If Kerrick had been afraid that Ferrell was about to kill him, he shouldn’t have been.
*Excerpts taken from an article originally published on Slate.