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Family of unarmed North Carolina man killed by police files wrongful-death suit

NBC News

Jonathon Ferrell's brother, Willie, and his mother, Georgia.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The family of an unarmed North Carolina man killed by 10 police bullets after he crashed his car and staggered to a nearby house for help has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit.

The family of Jonathon Ferrell said autopsy results, showing a downward trajectory by most of the bullets, suggest that Ferrell was either on his knees or already on the ground when Officer Randall Kerrick fired most of his shots.

They say Ferrell never posed a threat to Kerrick or the two officers who showed up with him after a woman called 911.

“This was a murderer who was acting while on duty. Taxpayers were paying him, and he murdered someone,” Christopher Chestnut, a lawyer for the family, told NBC News. “We all deserve answers. The department needs answers.”

The suit, filed Monday in North Carolina Superior Court, names the officer, the city, the county and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe as defendants.

It seeks monetary damages, but Chestnut said another goal was to use subpoena power to force police to turn over records that have been withheld from the family. That includes police dash-cam video of the Sept. 14 confrontation, which has not been made public.

Florida A&M/Handout via Reuters

Jonathon Ferrell

Ferrell, who was 24, played football for Florida A&M University, had recently moved to Charlotte and was engaged. His family has said he worked two jobs to put himself through school.

“If he met you only once, you would love him forever,” said his mother, Georgia. “He was a friend to everyone. I don’t care who you were. He didn’t care about color, creed. He didn’t care if you had a bad attitude — he’d love you anyway.”

According to his family, Ferrell had dropped off a coworker and was driving home at about 2 a.m. when he veered off the road and crashed his car so badly that he had to kick out the rear window to escape. The lawsuit says he walked a half-mile up a hill, toward the nearest houses, to seek help, and knocked on a door.

The woman inside, alone in the home with an infant, answered the door, thinking it was her husband coming home late from work. She saw Ferrell, quickly shut the door, called 911 and frantically reported, “There’s a guy breaking in my front door.”

Three officers went to the house. What happened next is not clear. Police have said that Ferrell ran toward the officers. One fired a Taser, but it failed to connect. Kerrick fired 12 bullets and hit Ferrell with 10 of them.

Within a day of the shooting, Charlotte police said they believed it had been excessive and charged Kerrick with voluntary manslaughter. State prosecutors are handling the case, as is customary when police are charged. The case goes to a grand jury later this month. 

Kerrick, 28, who joined the Charlotte force in 2011, is on unpaid leave. One of his lawyers, Michael Greene, declined comment on the wrongful-death suit. He also declined an interview on the criminal case against Kerrick, though he has said that the officer’s actions were justified.

“We remain committed to our client and his rights and to procedural due process,” Greene said in a statement emailed to NBC News. “As such, we will try the case in a court of law.”

AP Photo / Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police

Officer Randall Kerrick in an undated photo.

Bob Hagemann, the city attorney, said in a statement Tuesday that the suit was expected, but that in light of the criminal charges he could not comment other than “to reiterate the City’s and Chief Monroe’s expression of sympathy for Mr. Ferrell’s family.”

The county declined comment.

Toxicology reports showed that Ferrell had alcohol in his system, but that his blood-alcohol level was below the legal limit for driving.

During the confrontation, the suit says, Ferrell never behaved in a way that met the Charlotte police standard of “aggravated active aggression” required to justify the use of force. The suit accuses the officer of a series of mistakes before he fired.

Those missteps include failing to identify himself to Ferrell, approaching “using stealth and surprise” with his gun drawn and failing to see that Ferrell was “in the process of complying with his commands.”

The suit details the 10 shots that hit Ferrell — eight to the chest, one to the left arm and one to the abdomen — and describes Ferrell’s being handcuffed as he lay mortally wounded on the ground. Chestnut said likened the treatment to “when you go hunting for game.”

Ferrell’s relatives and his fiancée, Caché Heidel, said they have forgiven the officer. 

“It’s something else that God has put us through and will make us stronger,” said Willie Ferrell, Jonathon’s brother. 

But they said the pace of the investigation has been agonizing. 

Georgia Ferrell said she hopes the civil suit might push the criminal case forward. In an interview with NBC News on Monday, she clutched a Winnie the Pooh toy that she said her son treasured all his life, and she talked about what she missed.

“Just to hear his voice,” she said. “When he would see me, he would embrace me so tight. So much love that I would have to say, ‘Jon, let go.’”

Erin McClam reported from New York.