CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — The trial of a white Charlotte police officer accused of fatally shooting an unarmed black man won't be moved to another county despite extensive publicity about the case, a judge ruled Friday.
Attorneys for Randall Kerrick had said it's unlikely he can get a fair trial in Mecklenburg County because of heavy news coverage that they said would prejudice jurors.
Prosecutors say the 28-year-old Kerrick fatally shot 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell, a former Florida A&M football player, on Sept. 14, 2013. Kerrick was arrested the day of the shooting. He was later indicted for voluntary manslaughter, which carries a prison sentence of up to 11 years.
Kerrick's attorneys say interest in the case has increased because of the national debate about race and aggressive police tactics that begin in August with the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In the last month alone, several high-profile cases have fueled the issue. A white North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer was charged with shooting an unarmed black man in the back after a witness captured the encounter on his cellphone. And there was rioting in Baltimore after the death of a black man who was severely injured while in police custody.
"You have to take all of these things into account," Michael Greene told Judge Robert Ervin, who was hearing the motion for a change of venue.
Greene said prosecutors have described Ferrell as an "unarmed black man" looking for help. While Greene said the defense would prove that wasn't the case, he said they'd be hard pressed to find jurors in Mecklenburg County who hadn't heard that account.
But Steve Arbogast, a prosecutor with the state Attorney General's Office, said he believes Kerrick could get a fair trial.
Ervin said he faced a quandary. "Where would you move the case?" he asked. Since it has garnered national attention, even people in surrounding counties have heard of it.
"I don't see where I can go to get away from the publicity," the judge said.
He said they would try to seat a jury in Mecklenburg County. If they couldn't, he would revisit the issue. The trial is expected to begin in July.
The prosecution and defense also discussed other motions, offering a window into how they intend to approach the case.
Prosecutors say the shooting was a case of excessive force, while defense attorneys say Kerrick acted in self-defense.
The judge said he would rule later on a motion filed by Kerrick's attorney to let the jury see the shooting site.
After Ferrell crashed his car, he went to a nearby home and banged on the door for help. But the resident called police, saying someone was trying to break into her house.
Three officers responded to the scene, thinking they were dealing with a home invasion. Investigators say Kerrick fired 12 shots, 10 of which hit Ferrell. One of the officers used a Taser on Ferrell, but Kerrick was the only officer who fired his gun.
George Laughrun, one of Kerrick's attorneys, told the judge it will be important for the jury to go to the scene at night to see what the officers saw.
Laughrun said the testimony will show that Ferrell had been smoking marijuana and drinking before the crash, and that when he approached another officer he shouted: "Shoot me. Shoot me."
"There will be no witness who says Ferrell was trying to get help. He was disoriented because of the accident and alcohol he consumed," he said.
Arbogast said he "didn't want to litigate the case here." Then added that there was no reason to take the jury to the scene. He said they had enough maps and diagrams of the location.
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