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The American Way

Cooperative Media Do Charlotte D.A.’s Bidding

When a jury recently handed him defeat, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather nonetheless declared victory — with the help of local media.

The D.A.’s self-serving announcement came in a tweet from his office, accompanied by a press release and a news story from WSOC.

“Jury convicts domestic violence offender in car chase, shooting,” the release declared.

It continued, “A domestic violence offender who used his vehicle to ram into a vehicle containing a woman and four children before shooting at the vehicle has been convicted by a jury.”

In its story, WSOC adopted Merriweather’s framing of events: “A man was convicted and sentenced in connection with a domestic violence situation that ended in a crash and shooting near an east Charlotte police station on Feb. 19, 2019,” the station’s article began.

WSOC, along with the other media outlets that ran post-trial stories based solely on the district attorney’s press release, didn’t attend the trial and therefore had no way of knowing — and Merriweather certainly had no interest in highlighting — that it was not the prosecution, but the defense, that prevailed in court.

I know only because I served on the jury that acquitted the defendant of two of the three most serious charges he faced, including attempted first-degree murder.

*******

The facts of the case were tailor-made for an ecosystem of television news that thrives on titillation.

On the morning of February 19, 2019, Kendrick Piggie and the mother of his four children got into an argument in the parking lot of an east Charlotte Wal-Mart. Each drove separate vehicles. Their four young kids were in the mother’s SUV.

From Wal-Mart, the victim drove back to her mother’s house, about five minutes down the road. Along the way, she testified in court, she and Piggie played “bumper cars,” as Piggie struck her vehicle several times.

Once the cars arrived at her mother’s house, the victim opted against getting out and instead continued driving to the the nearby police station. Camera footage from the station showed both vehicles pull into the parking lot and remain there for several minutes.

They then exited the parking lot for about a minute — only to return with the victim pulling in first, followed by Piggie, who rammed his former girlfriend’s car from behind. Around this time, she called 911.

The vehicles maneuvered through the parking lot for another twenty seconds or so, with Piggie striking the victim’s car once more and then firing a gun through his passenger side window and door toward the victim’s vehicle.

He sped out of the parking lot and crashed his car a quarter-mile down the road. Cops soon found him hiding behind a nearby apartment complex’s dumpster.

The bullets Piggie fired hit no one, and police never found the gun.

A violent domestic quarrel in the presence of four kids, road rage, gunshots in the parking lot of a police station, an overturned vehicle, a foot chase, and a dramatic arrest — no wonder local television news picked up the story after the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department issued a press release describing all the sensational details.

“Man charged with attempted murder after following ex-girlfriend to police station, CMPD says,” proclaimed a story run by WCNC within hours of the events.

Fox 46 ran the story under the headline, “Police: Charlotte man rams into ex-girlfriend’s car with 4 kids inside, fires shots.”

WCCB ran Piggie’s mugshot and a list of the charges he faced, including possession of a gun by a felon, communicating threats, assault with a deadly weapon in the presence of a minor, shooting into an occupied vehicle, and attempted murder.

Crime scene tape surrounds the CMPD police station on North Sharon Amity Road where Kendrick Piggie assaulted his former girlfriend.

CMPD released the victim’s 911 call the day after the shooting, prompting a new round of stories.

From WSOC: “‘He has a gun’: 911 calls released after man accused of firing shots at woman, kids.”

And from WBTV: “‘Please help me’: 911 calls released after man allegedly rams car, starts shooting at woman and her children.”

The sole source for the stories published in the days after the shooting was CMPD, the government agency tasked with investigating and charging Piggie — and thus not a neutral party.

Of course, in the immediate wake of a crime’s commission, a practical problem arises for journalists: Who else but the police can function as a ready source of information in the hours and days after a crime occurs? Even diligent news outlets might reasonably struggle to overcome this limitation.

Not so following a trial.

*******

We several dozen prospective jurors reported to the courthouse on November 10. It took two days to select a panel. Late on the second day, I was seated as Juror No. 6.

Over four days of testimony, we heard from the victim, Piggie’s former girlfriend and the mother of his four children. We also listened to testimony from CMPD crime scene technicians, police officers, and detectives. We watched surveillance footage from the police station where the shooting occurred and body cam footage from officers who searched for and ultimately detained Piggie. We reviewed still photos and heard audio recordings of police interviews with the defendant and the victim.

We didn’t hear from Piggie, who exercised his right to not testify.

After closing arguments late on the fourth day of the trial, the jury retired to deliberate. We spent an hour beginning our discussions and then went home, returning the next morning.

By around noon, we had reached unanimous verdicts on all counts.

Some were relatively easy to decide.

Possession of a firearm by a felon was straightforward: The parties had stipulated at trial that Piggie had an old felony conviction for possession of stolen property, and he obviously had possessed a gun on the day of the shooting.

Assault with a deadly weapon in the presence of a minor also took little of our time. We quickly voted to convict on all four counts, one for each of the children in the car.

There was a little back-and-forth about the misdemeanor charge of communicating threats, but everyone eventually came around to Piggie’s guilt.

That left the most serious charges: two counts of shooting into an occupied vehicle and one count of attempted first-degree murder. (The state had charged five counts of shooting into an occupied vehicle, but after the prosecution presented its case, the judge dismissed three of the charges because there was so little evidence Piggie committed those crimes that no rational jury could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that he had done so.)

On the two remaining counts of shooting into an occupied vehicle, the jury delivered a split decision.

We concluded the state had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Piggie had fired one bullet into the vehicle occupied by the victim. The proof was a bullet hole in the driver’s side headlight and a corresponding hole in the casing at the rear of the headlight. (Among some jurors, this charge was not a slam dunk for the state, mostly because of shoddy police work by CMPD. Crime scene techs testified they undertook no efforts whatsoever — not even popping open the hood of the vehicle! — to try to locate the bullet.)

As to the other count, the only evidence that Piggie shot into the vehicle was a hole in the passenger’s side headlight. Unlike the driver’s side, though, there was no corresponding hole at the rear of the headlight. Nor were there bullet fragments in the casing of the headlight. Was this a bullet hole? (In her report, one crime scene tech described the hole in the driver’s side headlight as “a bullet hole,” but the hole in the passenger’s side headlight as merely “a hole.”) If it was a bullet hole, had the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the bullet went “into” the vehicle? Perhaps it merely ricocheted? Who knew? Not us, so we decided the state had not proven Piggie’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and acquitted on this count.

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather announced the Kendrick Piggie verdicts as though they were a victory for his office. They were not, but the media went along with the D.A.’s version of events.

That left the attempted first-degree murder charge, by far the most serious one Piggie faced. (If convicted, he would have been sent to prison for as much as twenty years.)

We jurors had put aside this count and first worked through the others because we assumed there were going to be heated discussions and deep divisions among us as we wrestled with the question, “Did the state prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Piggie actually intended to kill his former girlfriend?”

Our other work now done, we had to face it.

“Let’s start with a straw vote,” the foreman suggested. “All those voting guilty, raise your hands.”

Nothing — not a single hand in the air.

We all looked around, a little shocked.

“Did we just do this?” someone asked.

We laughed as the anxiety of a potentially divisive debate disappeared. Everyone agreed, and easily: The state hadn’t proven its case.

The foreman completed the verdict sheets and notified the bailiff. Then we returned to the courtroom, and the clerk published our verdict.

Piggie’s mother, seated behind her son, nervously clenched family members as the clerk started to read. With the words “not guilty,” she wept with relief. A bailiff counseled her to remain quiet.

The defendant, who had been standing rigid and erect, exhaled and bent over with relief upon hearing the verdict.

The defense attorney told the court before sentencing that the jury had returned precisely the verdict to which his client had been willing to plead guilty before trial.

When Piggie addressed the court, he thanked the jury.

*******

These were not the reactions you would expect to a verdict sought by the district attorney’s office, and for good reason: This wasn’t a verdict favorable to prosecutors. Merriweather’s office lost on the contested issues, gaining a conviction on only one of the six most serious charges Piggie faced at the trial’s opening.

But no media were present during the proceeding to see for themselves how it unfolded, which meant they weren’t in a position to understand that the result was a victory for the defense, not the prosecution: A self-interested press release from CMPD had guided the media’s coverage before the trial, and a self-interested press release from the district attorney’s office would guide the media’s coverage after the trial.

The first news story appeared on the same day the D.A.’s office issued its statement, about a week after the trial concluded. WBTV ran an article under the headline, “Man sentenced to prison for ramming, shooting into ex’s car in Charlotte.”

Adopting wholesale the narrative advanced by the district attorney’s office, the piece opened, “An area man was convicted earlier this month for following his ex-girlfriend and her four young children to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police station, ramming his car into hers, and shooting at the family.”

The article buried the lede, reporting in the next-to-last paragraph, “The jury found him guilty of all charges except attempted first-degree murder and one count of discharging a weapon into an occupied vehicle in operation.”

A story posted by WSOC — the one Merriweather ‘s self-serving tweet linked to — did much the same and saved until the article’s conclusion that the jury acquitted Piggie of two charges, including attempted first-degree murder. (To WSOC’s credit, it also reported that the judge dismissed three charges of firing into an occupied vehicle.)

A couple days later, a story by the Associated Press started running in various news outlets, including the Charlotte Observer.

It began, “A jury in North Carolina has convicted a man of charges arising from an argument with his ex-girlfriend in which he shot at her car and rammed it while she was at a police station.”

The version of the A.P. story that ran on the Observer‘s website omitted any mention of the acquittals, as did the story on Fox 46.

WCNC later followed the lead of WBTV and WSOC by mentioning at the tail-end of its story that the jury acquitted Piggie of attempted first-degree murder. (WCNC also broadcast a brief, thirty-second story that entirely failed to mention the acquittals.)

And when an Observer reporter wrote the newspaper’s own version of the story on November 29, he adopted the prosecution’s narrative.

“A Mecklenburg County jury has convicted Kendrick Piggie of a series of domestic violence charges from 2019 after he unleashed a moving wave of potentially deadly acts after arguing with his ex-girlfriend,” the reporter wrote.

Not until the penultimate paragraph did he report Piggie’s acquittal on the charge of attempted first-degree murder and one of the charges of firing into an occupied vehicle.

It’s no surprise, of course, that all of these stories adopted the prosecution’s perspective on the trial’s results: Without exception, each and every one of these pieces relied exclusively on the district attorney’s press release as its source of information.

No journalist attended the trial and decided for herself the narrative that best described events that transpired there, and no reporter spoke to Piggie or his lawyer to get their thoughts on the outcome.

These failures, combined with reporters’ unquestioning reliance on Merriweather’s characterization of the verdicts, function as a tacit confession of the media’s willingness to forgo independent journalism and instead embrace power-friendly stenography.

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

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