Florida A&MFlorida A&MWhat does it take for a cop to face criminal charges after killing an unarmed man? A North Carolina case promises to provide at least one answer. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall Kerrick shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell early Saturday morning, and by the end of the day he was charged with voluntary manslaughter. 

Kerrick and two other officers responded to a report of an attempted break-in at a house on Reedy Creek Road in northeastern Mecklenburg County around 2:30 a.m. Saturday. They encountered Ferrell near the house, and he ran toward them. Feeling threatened, Officer Thornell Little fired a Taser at Ferrell. When Ferrell continued to approach, Kerrick fired several rounds at him.

Unbeknown to the officers at that point, Ferrell had crashed his car into an embankment about half a mile from the house and was seeking help when the woman who called police mistook him for a burglar. She said when she heard someone knocking on her door, she initially thought it was her husband coming home late from work. When she opened the door and saw a stranger instead, she became alarmed, closed the door, and called the police. Ferrell evidently had climbed out the rear window of his badly damaged car and made his way to the nearest house. Having no luck there, he probably was relieved to see the officers.

According to a police department statement issued late on Saturday, "Our investigation has shown that Officer Kerrick did not have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter." Although the initial encounter with Ferrell was "appropriate and lawful," police said, "the shooting of Mr. Ferrell was excessive." City officials declined to discuss the evidence that led detectives to that conclusion.

It will be instructive to see the details of this case as they emerge, since police shootings rarely result in charges and investigations typically take weeks or months. (There still has been no official determination of why Escambia County, Florida, sheriff's deputies shot Roy Middleton in his own driveway on July 27, for instance, although Sheriff David Morgan has defended his officers.) Two experts on police shootings told the Charlotte Observer they had never heard of a case in which charges were brought so quickly. "The only thing I can figure," one said, "is the officer must have made some statement...that really put him in a bind." 

Christopher Chestnut, an attorney for Ferrell's family, suggests that the 24-year-old, a former Florida A&M football player who had recently moved to Charlotte with his fiancee, might still be alive if he had been white. “If Mr. Ferrell was not black or brown," he said in an interview with Reuters, "wouldn't they have asked him a few questions before showering him with bullets?"