By Greg Lacour
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Reuters) - The trial of a North Carolina police officer charged in the shooting death of an unarmed black man in 2013 went to a jury Tuesday afternoon.
Jurors, who began hearing testimony Aug. 3, will have to decide whether Randall Kerrick was justified in using lethal force against 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell in the early hours of Sept. 14, 2013.
Kerrick, 29, was charged with voluntary manslaughter and placed on unpaid leave from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department the same day as the shooting. If convicted, Kerrick could face as many as 11 years in prison.
The case has unfolded against the backdrop of a string of killings by white police officers of unarmed black men. The deaths have touched off a nationwide debate on issues of race and its influence on police conduct.
In the Kerrick case, the jury will have to weigh two drastically different versions of events, as illustrated by state and defense attorneys in their closing arguments.
Prosecutors painted Kerrick as an inexperienced officer who abandoned his training under duress and unnecessarily unloaded his gun into a man who posed no threat.
Prosecutor Adren Harris accused officers on the scene of assuming Ferrell was a dangerous criminal.
“They were there to arrest ... and ask questions later,” Harris told jurors.
“We’re not here to say he is a bad person, but he made a bad choice,” the prosecutor said, referring to Kerrick.
Defense attorney George Laughrun argued that Ferrell had sealed his own fate when he failed to comply with Kerrick’s commands to “get on the ground,” and that Kerrick had no way of knowing at the time whether Ferrell was armed.
“Choices - that’s what this case is about,” Laughrun said. “Unarmed is not harmless, and the body can be a weapon.”
Ferrell, a former Florida A&M football player who had recently moved to Charlotte, wrecked his car on a dark road after an evening out with friends.
Ferrell went to a nearby house for help, but the young woman who lived there feared a home invasion and called 911. Three Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers responded. Kerrick testified last week that Ferrell ran toward him, then landed on him as the two fell backwards into a drainage ditch.
Kerrick fired 12 shots at point-blank range, hitting Ferrell 10 times. Kerrick testified that Ferrell tried to grab his gun and that he feared for his life.
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Lambert)