Before Ferguson

Jonathan Ferrell Asked for Help—and Cops Killed Him

The trial has started for a Charlotte police officer accused of gunning down an unarmed 24-year-old who knocked on a door for help after a car crash.

08.04.15 5:00 AM ET

It was about 2:36 a.m. when Jonathan Ferrell knocked on a woman’s door to get help. The former college football player had crashed his car in an unfamiliar Charlotte, North Carolina, subdivision. The wreck was so bad, he kicked out a rear window to escape.

But when Sarah McCartney saw Ferrell outside, she slammed her door and dialed 911. She claimed the man was yelling and pounding on her door. She believed he was a robber. “He’s a black man,” she told the operator. “I opened the door and thought it was my husband. I just woke up. I was asleep.”

Soon after three cops arrived, the 24-year-old athlete was killed by a hail of bullets from Charlotte officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick’s gun. Ferrell was unarmed when Kerrick shot him 10 times, authorities say.

Now the 29-year-old Kerrick, who is white, is on trial for voluntary manslaughter and faces up to 11 years in prison if convicted. Both sides paint a strikingly different picture of what happened that night in September 2013.

During opening statements Monday, Kerrick’s attorney appeared to blame the victim—claiming Ferrell made “bad choices” that allegedly included drinking, smoking marijuana, and yelling “shoot me” before charging at police.

“This case is not about race. It never was about race. This case was about choices—Jonathan Ferrell’s bad choices,” defense attorney Michael Greene told jurors.

Greene said the 6-foot-tall, 225-pound Ferrell—who played for Florida A&M University—“didn’t act responsibly” when stopped by police.

“You didn’t hear, ‘Excuse me, officer. I’ve been in an accident. I could use some assistance,’” Green said, adding that Ferrell “had a choice in the way he presented himself [to police], just like he had a choice in the way he presented himself to Sarah McCartney.”

Meanwhile, the prosecutor alleged that Ferrell—battered from the car crash—was a victim of police brutality. Adren Harris, a special deputy attorney general, painted a horrifying narrative of Ferrell’s tragic end.

When Kerrick and another cop, Thornell Little, came upon Ferrell, they failed to identify themselves or give commands, Harris told the jurors. Little pointed his Taser’s red laser at Ferrell’s chest, and the terrified athlete tried to run between two patrol cars, where Kerrick stood with his weapon drawn and started backpedaling, Harris said.

Harris claimed Kerrick fired one shot and fell into a ditch. An injured Ferrell fell at Kerrick’s feet, and the cop allegedly fired six more shots. Harris said Kerrick fired again after seeing Ferrell begin to crawl, then he delivered the final two shots into Ferrell’s body.

The officers handcuffed the mortally wounded Ferrell, who, according to an emergency responder, was lying face down in a ditch.

“Neither officer on the scene, while Jon is lying face down in a pool of blood, attempts to render any first aid,” Harris told the jury.

He added, “Who polices the police when they do wrong? You do.”

The fateful encounter was captured on one Charlotte officer’s dashboard camera, but the footage has never been released. The tape is expected to be played at trial.

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The Ferrell case began before the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and many others sparked a media firestorm and national debate over the use of excessive police force on black men and teens.

Shortly after Ferrell was killed, Kerrick was charged and suspended without pay. But it took a second grand jury to finally indict him. 

In May, Ferrell’s family won a $2.25 million settlement in a civil suit against Kerrick and the city of Charlotte for his death.

John Barnett, founder of the True Healing Under God activist group, also known as T.H.U.G., told The Daily Beast he’s been holding frequent rallies to get police to release dashcam footage that might show Ferrell’s death.

He brushed off claims that Ferrell made “bad choices.”

“Visualize a black man with no prior record,” Barnett told The Daily Beast. “He was getting ready to get married. He worked at Best Buy and was going to school part time. He wanted a brand new life in Charlotte and was hanging out, drinking a beer with friends.”

“Nothing negative,” he added.

Ferrell’s friends and fiancée described him as soft-spoken and seemingly normal the night he died—testimony at odds with the defense’s claims that Ferrell was acting aggressively.  

The college athlete had visited a local bar with coworkers from Best Buy, where he worked after leaving Florida to be with his future wife, who was his high-school sweetheart.

Max Funderburke told the jury Ferrell gave him a ride home to the Bradfield Farms neighborhood, about 20 minutes from the tavern, according to the Charlotte Observer.

The pair watched TV at Funderburke’s home and smoked marijuana, the pal claimed, and Ferrell went on his way. Shortly after, his car veered off the road near McCartney’s home. (The medical examiner previously ruled that Ferrell’s blood alcohol level was below the legal limit and that he had no drugs in his system.)

Comea Walthall, who was Ferrell’s supervisor at the electronics chain, called him her “best employee.” “It was really shocking for everyone what happened,” Walthall told The Daily Beast. “He wasn’t a fighter… he was very respectful, very sweet. He was a teddy bear.” She added, “He was a hard worker, always on time, would always do extra shifts. Anything you needed, he would do. He was that guy.”

Last month, Ferrell’s mother, Georgia, spoke outside the courthouse during jury selection. When a reporter asked what Georgia would say to Kerrick, she replied, “First, I would give him a hug. And I would let him know he was wrong.”

“I would ask him, ‘Why would you take an innocent man’s life?’” Georgia Ferrell added. “‘Yes, I do forgive you, but you must be punished for what you’ve done.’”

The family’s attorney, Chris Chestnut, was more blunt when speaking about Kerrick’s defense team.

“I think they’re going to try to profile Jonathan as an angry black man, as a thug,” he said, “but they can’t.”