Jury selection begins Monday morning in the manslaughter trial for Tulsa, Oklahoma police officer Betty Jo Shelby, nearly eight months after she killed Terence Crutcher as he stood unarmed next to his car.
The high-profile case has attracted huge public interest, complicating many stages of the pre-trial process that began less than a week after Shelby shot Crutcher. Some of the same specters loom over the start of the formal trial on Monday.
There will be roughly 70 potential jurors in Judge Doug Drummond’s courtroom, far more than it typically takes to pick the 14 or so jurors and alternates a homicide trial requires.
Jurors will have to fill out two separate written questionnaires, one specific to pre-trial publicity about the case and another covering a broader slate of questions about jurors’ experiences with and opinions about police officers. After all jurors have completed the forms, clerks will make copies so that attorneys and the judge can review them. Only then can the court get down to the nitty-gritty of questioning jurors face to face.
In a typical homicide case in Tulsa, court sources say, it might take just an afternoon to pick a jury. Barring high publicity beforehand, there is usually no need for written questions. Trials of police officers are inherently stickier to navigate, however. The selection process has taken days and days in each of the multiple murder trials of Officer Shannon Kepler, for example.
Kepler’s case was big news locally. Shelby’s is of national interest, potentially compounding issues of juror and media prejudice.
Opening arguments, witness testimony, and cross-examination are therefore still days if not weeks away. Pre-trial documents give some general hint of what Shelby’s defense team and prosecutor Steve Kunzweiler each intend to argue.
Shelby’s lawyers will call on a mix of her fellow officers and outside experts on police work in the field, including the ex-cop turned academic who is the foremost proponent of the controversial idea that officers typically experience temporary deafness and other sensory distortions in the high-stress moments that are a police officer’s primary remit.
Kunzweiler will lean on the videos which show Shelby’s encounter with Crutcher from multiple angles, and which helped launch the killing into national prominence because they show Crutcher moving slowly with his hands raised and then being suddenly struck down. Shelby’s team was unable to bar jurors from hearing a snippet from the videos where another officer says that Crutcher, who was tall and heavyset and black, “looks like a bad dude.”
But many open questions remain as matters kick off in Drummond’s court.
Chief among them: Will Shelby testify in her own defense? It seems unlikely. It is historically rare for any person accused of a killing to take the stand, and rarer still for a police officer accused of a crime to do so. Besides, Shelby has already found a way to get her own voice into the atmosphere. She gave a long 60 Minutes interview last month for a segment that privileged her telling of events over that of Crutcher’s surviving family members and of community leaders who have rallied around the slain man.
The 60 Minutes feature will haunt the jury selection process this week. Potential jurors who acknowledge having seen it will likely be ruled out — a tougher standard than is applied to a juror’s broader media consumption, because Shelby’s sit-down interview effectively amounts to her giving testimony without facing cross-examination.
Should Shelby’s defense team — who were ordered to unplug their social media accounts and cease talking to reporters following the 60 Minutes interview — decide to put her on the stand, it would be unusual but not groundbreaking. Multiple police officers accused of crimes in on-duty shootings in recent years have gambled that the value of directly expressing their recollection of what happened to jurors outweighs the risks.
To complicate matters further, the union which represents Shelby and her fellow Tulsa officers filed a formal ethics complaint against Kunzweiler last week. The group accuses the prosecutor of rushing to judgment “merely based on watching a video” and charging Shelby without proper probable cause. A union representative told local reporters the group admires Kunzweiler but feels he mishandled this case due to public pressure.
Union officials say the timing of their move against Kunzweiler is coincidence rather than an effort to influence the trial. Intentions aside, the ethics complaint will nonetheless lengthen the list of potential contaminants in the jury pool.
Ultimately, of course, there is nothing that can guarantee juror impartiality. There is nothing to prevent someone who’s already made up their mind about Shelby’s innocence or guilt from misleading Drummond and the attorneys about their knowledge, beliefs, or intentions.
But through the pair of extensive questionnaires — which cannot yet be made public, according to the court clerk — and a thorough follow-up interrogation of potential jurors, the court will hope to find 14 or so people who haven’t yet made up their minds about a case where videos seem to show one truth, officers insist upon another, and a grieving family awaits the judgment of its community.