Race again an issue in ex-Tulsa cop’s fourth murder trial
TULSA, Okla. — Three hung juries in the case of a white former Oklahoma police officer charged with fatally shooting his daughter’s black boyfriend had one thing in common besides unwillingness to convict: Each had only one African-American juror.
Race has been an undercurrent in ex-Tulsa officer Shannon Kepler’s first-degree murder case, which is headed for a fourth trial. Criminal law experts and U.S. Supreme Court cases point to the importance of racial identity and policing when it comes to jury selection, which is set to start Monday.
Kepler, a 24-year veteran of the force, was off duty in August 2014 when he fatally shot Jeremey Lake, 19, who had just started dating Kepler’s daughter. Kepler doesn’t deny pulling the trigger but says he did so only because he thought Lake was armed. No weapon was found on or near Lake’s body.
Officers across the U.S. involved in fatal shootings of black residents have recently faced similar trials. In the past year alone — including in Tulsa — juries were unwilling to vote for a conviction or prosecutors were unwilling to charge officers in cases from Baltimore to St. Louis. In May, a jury acquitted now-former Tulsa officer Betty Jo Shelby in the killing of an unarmed black man.
“I don’t see how race cannot play a role,” said Kris McDaniel-Miccio, a professor at Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver and a former Bronx-based prosecutor. “I don’t think there’s any way to get around it because of what has happened in this community.”
The racial makeup of the juries in Kepler’s previous trials prompted criticism from at least one civil rights group.
Tulsa activist Marq Lewis with We the People Oklahoma said Kepler’s defense attorneys have been booting potential jurors based on skin color.
Richard O’Carroll, Kepler’s attorney, has denied race played a role in Lake’s killing. O’Carroll did not return messages seeking comment.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler declined to comment specifically on the racial makeup of the past juries, but acknowledged “frustration” with the results of the trials.
“I know I had citizens who put in a lot of effort and worked very hard and I know from their perspective they are frustrated as well,” Kunzweiler said.
Shannon Kepler arrives June 30 with his legal team for his trial in Tulsa, Okla. Kepler faces another trial in the 2014 fatal shooting of his daughter’s black boyfriend.