‘Not Guilty’: Oklahoma cop acquitted in September killing of unarmed motorist

Like most things involving Terence Crutcher’s death, the trial moved fast.

Tiffany Crutcher, center, addresses reporters after the police officer who killed her brother Terence last fall was found not guilty of manslaughter. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Tiffany Crutcher, center, addresses reporters after the police officer who killed her brother Terence last fall was found not guilty of manslaughter. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

An Oklahoma jury acquitted Tulsa police officer Betty Jo Shelby of manslaughter on Wednesday.

Jurors deliberated for nine hours before returning the “not guilty” verdict in Shelby’s trial for killing Terence Crutcher in September.

A crowd of about 100 people outside the courthouse reacted with chants of “no justice, no peace,” the Tulsa World reported.

Tiffany Crutcher, the sister of the dead man, pledged to keep fighting for change in Tulsa.

“I’m going to make sure we don’t rest until we get reforms for this police department in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we change the culture of this corrupt police department,” she said.

Crutcher family attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons echoed her criticisms.

“If there’s one thing we’re thankful for in this night of injustice, it’s that so much of what TPD has done in this case has been exposed in this court of law,” he said.

The Tulsa World described one fleeting moment of tension between police and protesters outside the courthouse but said the crowd was peaceful.

Shelby’s case had leaped to national prominence last fall thanks to the police department’s rapid public release of videos of her deadly Friday evening encounter with Crutcher on an empty strip of road.

The videos were released three days after Crutcher, who had no weapon either on his person or in his vehicle when Shelby killed him with a single shot to the torso, had died. District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler filed manslaughter charges against Shelby another three days after the videos were released to the press and public.

Each of those decisions was unusually quick, a quality which Shelby supporters and critics reacted to very differently at the time. Kunzweiler’s alacrity made for stark contrast with the behavior of prosecutors following many other high-profile police killings.

In the on-duty killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, for example, prosecutors opted for lengthy grand jury processes seemingly designed to avoid ever charging the officers involved. And when police killed Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, just days after Crutcher’s death in Oklahoma, officials initially insisted they could not release video exonerating their officers — a decision they reversed after two nights of civil unrest and smashed windows.

The speed and transparency of Tulsa officials’ conduct last fall was praised by Crutcher’s family, but later became a central plank in Shelby’s defense. Her fellow officers and their union representatives have blasted the DA’s office for what they called a rush to judgment before police had completed their own investigation of the killing.

Shelby’s trial, too, moved quickly. Wednesday night’s verdict landed just nine days after jury selection had begun.

It is extraordinarily rare for a police officer to be indicted in an on-duty shooting, and rarer still for the few who do face juries to be found guilty. Despite her eventual acquittal, Shelby faced a greater degree of public accountability than the vast majority of police officers who use deadly force against unarmed citizens.

Prosecutor Kunzweiler stressed the value of trying the case in a statement to press released late Wednesday night.

“This case had to be tried by a jury. It was, is and will continue to be a difficult issue to discuss for my community,” Kunzweiler said. “I commend these jurors for their courage to step into a courtroom, give up their own precious time, and dedicate themselves to upholding the rule of law.”

Shelby’s case fits some familiar patterns in cases where a white officer shoots an unarmed black man. There is video, but different viewers interpret what it shows very differently. Crutcher’s past was dredged up and scrutinized after he was killed.

And to several observers, both Shelby’s own actions and the commentary from another officer in a helicopter at the scene are indicative of the implicit biases that large black men elicit in police officers. Benjamin Crump, an attorney who has represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, has called the case “but one of the examples of implicit bias that many police officers have about black men” in a column reiterating his call for changes to how officers are trained.

“Is she a racist? Does she, you know, have some ill will toward black people? I doubt it,” Tulsa Pastor Ray Owens told 60 Minutes. “But if she is like so many people in our nation, she assumes too quickly that a black male, especially out on the streets at night, is a threat and not a citizen.”

The tapes showed Crutcher had walked away from Shelby with his hands high above his head, stood next to the driver’s side door of his vehicle, and then been shot. Shelby said she fired because Crutcher had moved to reach inside the car’s window, prompting her to decide he was going for a gun.

The video was inconclusive on the question of Crutcher’s very final movement. The standard of law jurors are asked to use in evaluating such moments is deceptively complicated. Some legal scholars of police force have suggested that it is too vague and too likely to predispose jurors to believe they must side with police in such disputes over whether or not a killing was justified.

Members of the jury had asked Judge Doug Drummond for permission to address the court to explain their decision, a request he was bound to deny. Five jurors reportedly burst into tears when the clerk announced the “not guilty” verdict.