A Charlotte cop hit and killed a man while driving 100 mph. His trial starts Monday

In July 2017, two lives headed in different directions intersected south of uptown Charlotte at more than 100 mph.

In an instant, James Michael Short was dead, his body thrown more than the length of a football field down Morehead Street after being struck by the patrol car driven by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Phillip Barker.

Barker, who was responding to a pre-dawn report of a wreck nearby, was traveling at almost three times the posted speed limit of 35 mph.

Next week, the two men’s lives will cross once again, this time in a Mecklenburg County courtroom.

On Dec. 5, Barker will become the first CMPD officer in more than seven years to be tried on criminal charges tied to an on-duty death.

The now 29-year-old is charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony, and two counts of misdemeanor death by vehicle in connection with the collision that killed Short on July 8, 2017.

If convicted of all charges, Barker faces a maximum sentence of more than five years in prison.

In a real sense, Barker’s attorneys are expected to put Short on trial, too — specifically, his actions during his last hours of life that left large amounts of drugs and alcohol in his body, which may have impaired his judgment and contributed to his death.

In fact, the lawyers say Short, a 28-year-old computer student at Central Piedmont Community College, had drunk so much at a South End bar that night that he had been ordered to leave.

Short crossed Morehead “despite having three marked CMPD patrol vehicles traveling in his direction with blue lights and sirens activated,” Michael Greene, a member of Barker’s Charlotte-based defense team, said previously.

Asked last week by The Charlotte Observer if he believes drugs and alcohol contributed to Short’s death, Greene declined to comment.

The trial could take up to two weeks. The defense team, which also includes George Laughrun, plans to call more than 20 witnesses. Barker will be tried by Bill Bunting and Glenn Cole, two of the most veteran homicide prosecutors in the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office.

Barker has deep ties to the police department. His father is a retired CMPD sergeant while his mother is a former magistrate who still works at the department in a civilian position. Barker has been on unpaid administrative leave since his arrest.

He was originally charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle. In December 2017, however, the District Attorney’s Office took the case before a grand jury, which returned the far more serious involuntary manslaughter indictment.

At the time of Barker’s arrest, then Police Chief Kerr Putney described the officer’s driving speed as “excessive,” and said it was the determining factor in the department’s decision to bring charges. Putney said CMPD officers are allowed to speed when their emergency lights are on but only if they do so with the safety of others in mind.

“Sometimes with youth, you don’t have the experience,” he said of Barker, who was 24 at the time and had joined CMPD 18 months earlier.

Greene says his client should never have been arrested or indicted. He told the Observer last week that Short’s death was an accident, not the legal grounds for criminal charges.

“When the jury sees the evidence in its totality,” he said, “they will certainly see that this was not a crime.”

Excessive speed vs. drugs, alcohol

In one regard, the jury’s verdict could hinge on what set of numbers receive the most weight.

Prosecutors say Barker was driving recklessly on July 8, 2017, when he blasted south down Morehead Street at 3:30 a.m. while responding to a “priority one” call of a car crashing into a building on Kings Drive in which the driver possibly had been ejected.

Barker was one of three officers who raced toward the reported wreck. He was traveling at more than 100 mph when he raced down the hill by the Dowd YMCA toward Euclid Avenue. That’s where Short was crossing the street.

Barker had the green light, and his emergency lights and siren were on. Prosecutors and Barker’s defense team disagree on whether Short was walking in the Morehead Street crosswalk or near it.

Short had been drinking at The Bar at 316 in South End. His blood-alcohol level at the time of his death ranged from .24 to .30, at least three times the legal limit for driving while impaired.

His autopsy also showed that Short had ingested what the N.C. Medical Examiner’s office considers to be a “toxic” amount of Xanax, a powerful anti-depressant that affects the brain and central nervous system, particularly when combined with alcohol.

Manslaughter trials and cops

Criminal charges against Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are rare; charges involving on-duty homicides are rarer still.

Barker is the city’s first police defendant in a manslaughter trial since Randall “Wes” Kerrick, who was charged in connection with the September 2013 shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell.

Kerrick shot the unarmed Ferrell 10 times after the former college football player ran toward him during an early morning confrontation east of Charlotte. Kerrick’s 2015 trial ended in a hung jury with eight of the 12 members voting to acquit. The charges were later dropped, and Kerrick left the force.

In 2009, CMPD officer Martray Proctor pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to three years’ probation after his police cruiser struck a car driven by 20-year-old Shatona Robinson, who died at the scene. Proctor was traveling as fast as 111 mph in a 45 mph zone and did not have his siren on.

The Kerrick and Barker cases share at least three similarities. Greene and Laughrun also represented Kerrick. Meanwhile, the Barker trial will be heard by Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin, who also was on the bench for Kerrick.

In both cases the City of Charlotte agreed to pay large settlements to the dead men’s families long before the trials.

In Ferrell’s case, the check was for $2.25 million. After the trial, the city also paid Kerrick about $180,000 in return for his resignation.

In March 2019, the city settled with Short’s family for $950,000, the Observer reported at the time.

Nationally, fatal collisions between emergency vehicles and pedestrians occur every other day, according to the National Safety Council. In 2020, 180 people died in crashes involving emergency vehicles, with police cars accounting for 132 of the fatalities.

Pedestrians made up a quarter (45) of the overall deaths.