Criminal charges in Tulsa police shooting may prevent unrest

Less than a week after an unarmed black man was shot dead by a white police officer on a Tulsa street, prosecutors charged the officer with first-degree manslaughter, a decision that may prevent unres

Justin Juozapavicius and Sean Murphy, Associated Press | 9/23/2016, 11:10 a.m.
Less than a week after an unarmed black man was shot dead by a white police officer on a Tulsa ...

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Less than a week after an unarmed black man was shot dead by a white police officer on a Tulsa street, prosecutors charged the officer with first-degree manslaughter, a decision that may prevent unrest in a city with a long history of tense race relations.

Officer Betty Shelby "reacted unreasonably" when she fatally shot 40-year-old Terence Crutcher on Sept. 16, prosecutors wrote in an affidavit filed with the charge Thursday. Police also quickly provided videos of the shooting to black community leaders and members of Crutcher's family before releasing them to the public.

Crutcher died from a "penetrating gunshot wound of chest," the Oklahoma state medical examiner's office said Friday, classifying his death as a homicide. Spokeswoman Amy Elliott said a full autopsy report and toxicology results are not yet complete.

The swift action in Tulsa stands in contrast to Charlotte, North Carolina, where police refused Thursday under mounting pressure to publicly release video of this week's fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, another black man, and the National Guard was called in after violent protests. Demonstrations in Tulsa since Crutcher's death have been consistently peaceful.

Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett praised the police department for quickly providing evidence to District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler's office.

"These are important steps to ensure that justice and accountability prevails," Bartlett said in a statement, adding the city will "continue to be transparent."

Prosecutors' motivation may have been partly to allay outrage and avoid the kind of violence Charlotte has seen, said Phil Turner, a Chicago-based defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. "But I don't think the charge was only to give the crowd some blood. ... No. I think (prosecutors) must have thought charges were warranted," he said.

If convicted, Shelby faces between four years and life in prison. She was booked in the Tulsa County jail at 1:11 a.m. Friday and released 20 minutes later after posting $50,000 bond, according to jail records.

Crutcher's twin sister, Tiffany Crutcher, said her family is pleased with the charge, but she and her attorneys want a vigorous prosecution that leads to a conviction.

Family attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons said, "the family wants and deserves full justice. Not only for this family, not only for Terence but to be a deterrent for law officers all around this nation to know that you cannot kill unarmed citizens."

Shelby's attorney, Scott Wood, did not immediately respond to telephone messages seeking comment on the charges.

Dashcam and aerial footage of the shooting and its aftermath showed Crutcher walking away from Shelby with his arms in the air. The footage does not offer a clear view of when Shelby fired the single shot.

Her attorney has said Crutcher was not following police commands and that Shelby opened fire when the man began to reach into his SUV window. But Crutcher's family immediately discounted that claim, saying the father of four posed no threat. Police said Crutcher did not have a gun on him or in his vehicle.

The affidavit filed Thursday indicates that Shelby "cleared the driver's side front" of Crutcher's vehicle before she began interacting with him, suggesting she may have known there was no gun on the driver's side of the vehicle.