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Working Within

In a polarized world, Michael Greene finds his way by focusing on the facts

Published in 2022 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine

Photo by: Jeff Cravotta

When Mike Greene was in middle school, a white classmate called him the N-word. The boys began fighting and Greene ended up in the principal’s office. When he got home, Greene told his father what happened.

“I thought he’d be on my side,” Greene says. “He said, ‘Well, where was he while you were in the principal’s office?’ I said, ‘In class.’ He said, ‘What was he doing?” I said, ‘Learning.’ ‘And where were you?’ I said, ‘At the principal’s office.’

“Then he picked me up, face to face, and said ‘nigger’ about 20 times,” Greene says. “He said, ‘You don’t have the luxury to be offended.’” 

That lesson served Greene well decades later when he represented former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Wes Kerrick, who was charged in the on-duty death of a Black man. 

In the schoolyard, Greene was singled out for being Black. The lawyer Greene was accused of betrayal from others of his race—that he wasn’t Black enough. Prominent members of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Black community denounced Greene, and questioned his integrity and his “connection to the American Black experience.” He and Kerrick were followed, accosted, and received threats. “I know where you live,” an email to Greene read. “A letter, to [Kerrick’s] pregnant wife, said something to the effect of, ‘I can’t believe you would be married to a piece of shit like this. He’ll get what he deserves,’” Greene recalls. 

During the trial, prominent Charlotte civil rights activist Kass Ottley told the Charlotte Observer, “I think [Greene] is a Black man who does not want to be Black. It made me question his upbringing, where he grew up, how he lived.” A Black boycott of his practice formed online.

But Greene, a partner at Goodman Carr Laughrun Levine & Greene, took the slings and arrows. When a Black colleague said he couldn’t support Greene’s defense of the police officer, Greene replied, “I didn’t ask for your support, and I don’t need it. 

“It was funny to me that anyone would question why I would represent [Kerrick]. My question is, ‘Why would you not? You are a lawyer, sworn to protect the Constitution. This man is entitled to a defense,” Greene says. “What am I going to say? ‘Sorry, I can’t do it because you shot somebody who looks like me?’ I don’t think I studied that in school.”

Those closest to Greene say they weren’t surprised he took the case.

Says Greene’s sister, A.V. Greene: “Mike truly believes that you work within the system to identify and rectify social justice issues.”

 

Greene grew up in Springfield, Ohio, the third of five children. While his father, Jerry, grew up nearby, his mother, Pamela, was raised in Guyana, South America, then attended nursing school in the UK because she knew that degree was transferable to the United States. 

Springfield was a blue-collar city back then, fueled by the nearby factories churning out products for companies like John Deere, Navistar and Pentaflex. A.V. Greene says she and her brothers and sisters were often the only children of color in their classrooms. When the family settled in a predominantly white neighborhood, there was tension until residents “decided we were ‘good’ Black people,” she says. “But it was always there.”

Michael Greene remembers being teased in the cafeteria when his packed lunch held pepper pot rice or callaloo cook-up instead of sandwiches and chips. Students asked if they could touch his hair and if he ever had to wash it. 

Greene’s parents’ very different upbringings shaped their views on racism. Pamela moved to the U.S. after the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. She saw the country as a place that would give her opportunities she wouldn’t have had in South America. Jerry grew up in segregated America, served two tours in Vietnam, and worked in a General Motors factory before being laid off; after, he’d go on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and become a special education teacher. 

Out for evening walks, the elder Greene was routinely questioned by police who believed he was in the wrong neighborhood.

“It was always, ‘Hey boy, what are you doing here?’ He started to take his ID with him when he walked,” Greene says. “I don’t think it was a big defining moment, but it was the little things that guided me to law.” 

When Greene was in fifth grade, all he wanted for Christmas was The Dukes of Hazzard race car set. His father said no: The General Lee was emblazoned with the Confederate flag. 

“I didn’t understand why he didn’t want me to have this car,” Greene says. “I remember my mom saying, ‘Jerry, to him it’s just a car.’” 

Yet there it was, Christmas morning, under a twinkling tree. “I remember hugging my dad and saying thanks and he just said, ‘Boy, you’ll know one day.’” 

 

Greene fell in love with law—and Wake Forest—soon after entering law school. He ticks off the names of professors who still inspire him, particularly Robert Binswanger, whom former President Bill Clinton called “a natural treasure and an inspiration.”  

“He’s an incredible lawyer,” says former roommate Jon Landy, who practices in Washington, D.C with Williams & Connolly. “His job is extremely serious and there’s a lot on the line, but he’s able to transition. He’s also a lively and entertaining person with a great sense of humor who is always looking for the funny and joy in everything.”

Adds friend Matt Doyle, a Charlotte-based real estate attorney with Doyle & Wallace, “He understands people, he knows how to make them feel comfortable,” Doyle says. “Whether he’s talking to the head of a Fortune 500 company or a hotel bellman or anyone in between, he can just relate to people.”

Greene needed that skill after he got his first job, in December 2000, as an assistant district attorney for Mecklenburg County.

“You finish in one court and jump to another. You’ve got 300 cases on the table, and you may have some work to do before trial, but the judge is like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s keep this thing moving,’” he says. “You’re dealing with judges and clerks and you’ve only got 10 to 20 seconds to talk to an officer about a case, and you’re up against an attorney whose been practicing for 20 years and had weeks to prepare, and you’ve still got to match wits.” He pauses. “It was absolutely wonderful.”

He learned there were opportunities to right wrongs, even little ones. In one case, a Black doctor told Greene that he was pulled over. The officer asked to search the car. The doctor said no, adding that he didn’t even know why he was pulled over.

“And the officer said, ‘You weren’t wearing your seatbelt.’ The doctor said, ‘Sir, you just saw me take off my seatbelt when you asked me to step out of the car.’ But he still got a seat belt ticket. I dismissed it,” Greene says. “I went to the officer and said, ‘Why did you do this?’ and he said he ‘couldn’t remember.’ He understood my going to him was my way of saying, ‘Don’t you come back in here with that nonsense.’”

Andrew Wrenn, a former police officer who now works for the safety technology company Axon, says Greene was always focused on positive outcomes for the greater good. 

“That could mean charging a person with as much as possible because the facts of the case showed the person was a danger to society,” Wrenn says, “or on the opposite end, when we had to charge a mom for stealing Advil because the store expected it, but we took minimums and what was required to move on and get mom help.”  

In January 2003, Jerry Greene died while waiting for a kidney transplant. He’d refused to even consider taking one from one of his children. Greene needed to return to Ohio as soon as possible, but his car was near the brink and he couldn’t afford to fly. He was preparing to take a bus when a friend appeared at his door. His fellow prosecutors had taken up a collection and they had enough for a plane ticket. 

While in Ohio, Greene was frustrated that he didn’t have money to contribute towards his father’s memorial services. 

“When you’re the oldest boy, you’re supposed to take care of things,” says Greene. “I didn’t feel like the oldest son. I made up my mind that that was never going to happen to me again.”

Eight months later, Greene joined the defense team at what is now Goodman Carr Laughrun Levine & Greene.

“My father was my hero, the rock of the family, not only for my immediate family but for my cousins who didn’t have that kind of father figure,” says Greene, now raising Everleigh, 5, with wife Anna, an assistant district attorney. “I think it’s just made me focus, made me a little more driven to do well and provide.”

 

The first time Greene appeared in a courtroom for the defense, the police officers in the gallery booed him and coughed “traitor” under their breath, in jest. 

“Most of them were decent friends of mine and I said, ‘Look guys, I’ll give you that about 98 percent of people did exactly what you said they did. The issue is: Can you prove it? If you can’t prove it, then shup up,” Greene recalls. “And they all go, ‘That’s fair.’”

“We refer to him as ‘the mayor’,” says Doyle. “He knows all the bailiffs, he knows all the DAs, he knows all the clerks, and he’s got nicknames for everybody. He’s beloved in Charlotte and our community.”

Since the switch, Greene’s handled hundreds of cases, but a few have stuck to his bones more than others.

Like the 2019 case in which he represented 25-year-old single mom Jiterria Lightner, charged with criminal abuse and neglect after her 3-year-old son, Jaiden, died from injuries sustained after falling from an escalator at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Lightner, Jaiden and her two other children—aged 2 and 4—had just returned from Florida and had been waiting over an hour in the airport for a family member to pick them up when Jaiden began playing with his sister near an escalator. His fall was recorded via airport security cameras.

Greene says the charges against Lightner, an unmarried Black woman, reflect the way socioeconomics and race come into play in the justice system.

“They kept saying, ‘She should have supervised her kids.’ But look at the video. She’s only 10 feet away, and there are other kids playing near the escalator as well,’” Greene says. “She’s got an hour to wait, three toddlers, all this luggage, when this terrible thing happens.” 

Greene sat down with prosecutors and the charges were later dismissed because of insufficient evidence. 

 

The year before, Greene represented 16-year-old Jatwan Cuffie pro bono after Cuffie fatally shot a classmate in school. 

Greene saw the case on the news. “There was something about the look on the kid’s face,” Greene says. “Everything about him screamed, ‘I need help.’ He didn’t have a Pam and a Jerry Greene.”

Greene argued that Cuffie had taken the gun to school to intimidate the bullies who badly beat him the weekend before. Cuffie pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to six years. Greene has stayed in touch, and sent him a passage from Makes Me Wanna Holler, Nathan McCall’s memoir on being a young Black man in America, that he hopes Cuffie will find as illuminating as he did. 

“The day he gets out, I’m taking him to lunch to find out what he wants to do with his life,” Greene says. 

For Greene, these cases are about doing what’s right for someone in need, like Officer Wes Kerrick.

On Sept. 14, 2013, former Florida A&M University football player Jon Ferrell was out with friends and wrecked his car in the woods. He had been drinking, and though his level came back as .06 when he was tested, an expert later extrapolated that it was closer to .084. Friends also reported Ferrell had smoked marijuana that day, although the state never tested for it.

Ferrell exited the car by kicking out the rear window. He then walked to the home of Sarah McCartney, who would later testify that she was alone with her infant son when Ferrell banged on her door. She looked out to see him pacing up and down the sidewalk, sometimes coming back to her step to kick the door. He was yelling, but she testified that all she could decipher were the words, “Turn it off,” which she thought referred to her burglar alarm. She also testified that Ferrell did not say he’d been in an accident or that he needed help. McCartney called 911 and reported that someone was trying to break into her house. 

Kerrick and two other officers responded to the 911 call. Video shows Ferrell walking toward the officers as they pulled up. A few seconds later, Ferrell runs toward them and a voice is heard yelling, “Get on the ground!” three times. The actual shooting occurred off-camera. Kerrick fired 12 times; 10 bullets struck Ferrell.

Kerrick said he used lethal force because he thought he saw Ferrell reaching toward his waist, then rushed him, knocked him to the ground, and then tried to take away his gun. Ferrell’s DNA was found on Kerrick’s body, uniform and gun. 

Greene says he spent two years looking through the facts of the case, and never wavered in his belief in Kerrick. “I believe absolutely he acted in self-defense,” Greene says. “I said if he goes to jail, I don’t think I can practice law anymore.”

The trial began in August 2015, when white supremacy was on the rise and month after month brought another example of a Black man killed by police force: Eric Garner in July 2014; Michael Brown in August 2014; Tamir Rice in November 2014; Walter Scott in April 2015.   

But the facts of his case, Greene says, were unlike other high-profile shootings. “There was no mistake of fact, like, ‘Oh, I thought I was in my apartment,’” Greene says. “Or the actions of the suspect in this case versus those times when no apparent crime was committed.”

He points out that two Black officers on the scene with Kerrick testified they would have also fired their weapons if they were in Kerrick’s position.

So when Black Lives Matter protesters marched outside the courthouse during Kerrick’s trial, Greene thought it was “misplaced.” “Of course, I get it,” he says. “I hear the message: Why are these things happening to Black individuals disproportionally to everyone else? That’s the issue. But the facts of this case were different.” 

The Kerrick trial lasted almost three weeks. More than 50 witnesses took the stand and more than 300 exhibits were shown. 

Landy remembers being struck by Greene’s closing argument. “He had a great tone and demeanor to convey the gravity of the situation,” he says. “He had obviously mastered the evidence well and presented the right mix of facts, legal framework and common sense to give his client strong representation.” 

“I’ve never seen a performance like that outside of movies,” adds Wrenn. “He just destroyed the state.”  

The jury vote at the start of deliberations was 7 to 5 not guilty. At the end, the vote was 8 to 4, not guilty. The trial ended in mistrial.

“When we did speak with jurors, a big piece of it was the DNA being on the weapon, because Kerrick testified he was struggling underneath Ferrell and couldn’t get away, and that’s why he kept firing,” Greene says. “That evidence won the day.”

Not everyone agreed. Once news of the hung jury went public, about a dozen people lay down on the street outside the courthouse shouting, “No justice, no peace.” Later that evening, about 100 protesters gathered outside the city’s minor league baseball stadium. Greene says while there were tense moments, no one was injured nor any property damaged.

People who knew his father and his father’s experiences would often ask Greene what he thought his father might say about his defense of Kerrick. “He’d say to me what he always did—’Lean on the Lord, and do your job, boy.’

“My dad’s message wasn’t that you don’t advocate or you don’t fight; it was that you teach,” Greene says. “And maybe, instead of striking someone, hear my silence or see my face. It takes everybody for this to work.”


Now Reading

Greene’s favorite passage from Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler, which chronicles McCall’s life from prisoner to reporter to senior lecturer in African-American Studies at Emory University:

“[Fellow inmate] Mo Battle taught me chess by explaining its philosophical parallels to life. … One day, I made a move to capture a pawn of his and gave Mo Battle an opening to take a valuable piece. He smiled and said, “You can tell a lot about a person by the way he plays chess. People who think small in life tend to devote a lot of energy to capturing pawns, the least valuable pieces on the board. They think they’re playin’ to win, but they’re not. People who think big tend to go straight for the king or queen, which wins you the game.” I never forgot that. Most guys I knew, myself included, spent their entire lives chasing pawns. The problem was, we thought we were going after kings.”

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