Deputy faces charges

Wealthy vol­un­teer in Ok­la­homa is ac­cused of man­slaugh­ter in an un­armed man’s death.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Matt Pearce matt.pearce@la­times.com Twit­ter: @mat­tdpearce

A vol­un­teer Ok­la­homa sher­iff ’s deputy was charged with man­slaugh­ter Mon­day af­ter pros­e­cu­tors said he was neg­li­gent for shoot­ing an un­armed sus­pect with a gun in­stead of a Taser dur­ing an ar­rest.

The charges were a re­sound­ing re­jec­tion of the Tulsa County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice’s eval­u­a­tion of the case: that its re­serve deputy, Robert Charles Bates, made an ex­cus­able er­ror when he fa­tally shot Eric Court­ney Har­ris, 44, on April 2.

Bates, 73, is a wealthy in­sur­ance ex­ec­u­tive with close per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal ties to the sher­iff. The sec­ond-de­gree man­slaugh­ter charge car­ries a max­i­mum penalty of four years in pri­son.

The in­ci­dent be­gan as a sting, with of­fi­cers try­ing to ar­rest Har­ris on sus­pi­cion of sell­ing a gun to an un­der­cover of­fi­cer. Har­ris fled. Body cam­era video showed a foot chase and a dif­fer­ent deputy tack­ling Har­ris.

Bates had not been ex­pected to par­tic­i­pate in the ar­rest, but the ar­rest es­sen­tially came to him be­cause of the chase.

As an­other of­fi­cer tries to hand­cuff Har­ris, Bates, stand­ing off-screen, shouts “Taser!” but fires a gun­shot in­stead, the video shows.

“I shot him; I’m sorry,” says Bates, whose gun falls to the ground.

“He shot me!” Har­ris can be heard say­ing, and then moan­ing as law en­force­ment of­fi­cers wres­tle with the fa­tally wounded man and curse him. Har­ris died an hour later.

Bates did not re­spond to a mes­sage left at his in­sur­ance com­pany Mon­day. His at­tor­ney, Scott Wood, could not be reached for com­ment.

The shoot­ing has drawn at­ten­tion to Tulsa County’s use of re­serve deputies, whose ranks in­clude the wealthy and po­lit­i­cal back­ers of long­time Sher­iff Stan­ley Glanz.

Har­ris’ fam­ily crit­i­cized the depart­ment as biased in de­cid­ing to con­duct its own in­ves­ti­ga­tion into one of Glanz’s friends.

Glanz called the shoot­ing an “er­ror.”

“Bob and I both love to fish,” the sher­iff told the Tulsa World on Mon­day as he held up a photo of the two of them fish­ing to­gether. Bates was also his in­sur­ance agent, he said. “Is it wrong to have a friend?”

The Sher­iff’s Of­fice had de­fended Bates, who do­nated cars and other equip­ment to the depart­ment, as a squall of crit­i­cism gath­ered. On Fri­day, the depart­ment brought in an out­side con­sul­tant to an­nounce the re­sults of the sher­iff ’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The con­sul­tant, Jim Clark, said the shoot­ing was ex­cus­able homi­cide. For more than 20 min­utes, Clark gave a step-by-step ar­gu­ment to re­porters that the in­ci­dent was ex­plain­able by brain science. He cited a the­ory called “slips and cap­ture,” which pos­tu­lates that the brain au­to­mat­i­cally re­verts to in­grained be­hav­iors dur­ing stress­ful and chaotic mo­ments, some­what sim­i­lar to when driv­ers reach for nonex­is­tent knobs when be­hind the wheel of new cars.

“It is my opin­ion, af­ter re­view­ing all the facts and cir­cum­stances of this case, [the state’s ex­cus­able homi­cide statute] was ap­pli­ca­ble in this in­ci­dent,” said Clark, a Tulsa city po­lice sergeant act­ing in a pri­vate ca­pac­ity. “Re­serve Deputy Bates did not com­mit a crime. Re­serve Deputy Bates was a vic­tim, a true vic­tim, of ‘slips and cap­ture.’ There’s no other de­ter­mi­na­tion I could come to.”

The Tulsa County dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice came to the op­po­site con­clu­sion Mon­day. In a news re­lease, Dist. Atty. Stephen A. Kun­zweiler com­mented on the un­usual cir­cum­stances of the case:

“Mr. Bates is charged with sec­ond-de­gree man­slaugh­ter in­volv­ing cul­pa­ble neg­li­gence. Ok­la­homa law de­fines cul­pa­ble neg­li­gence as ‘the omis­sion to do some­thing which a rea­son­ably care­ful per­son would do, or the lack of the usual or­di­nary care and cau­tion in the per­for­mance of an act usu­ally and or­di­nar­ily ex­er­cised by a per­son un­der sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances and con­di­tions.’”

Har­ris’ killing ap­peared rem­i­nis­cent of a racially charged Cal­i­for­nia case fea­tured in the movie “Fruit­vale Sta­tion.”

A white Bay Area tran­sit of­fi­cer, Jo­hannes Mehserle, fa­tally shot un­armed black 22-year-old Os­car Grant III with his gun in­stead of his Taser while try­ing to ar­rest him. The 2009 in­ci­dent in Oak­land was filmed by by­standers.

Mehserle was charged with sec­ond-de­gree mur­der. A jury con­victed him of in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter — a crime of neg­li­gence — and he was sen­tenced to two years in pri­son.

At least one of the de­fense ex­perts who tes­ti­fied in that case, Bill Lewin­ski — direc­tor of the Force Science In­sti­tute, which stud­ies po­lice use of force — con­firmed to The Times on Mon­day that he had been con­sulted by Bates’ at­tor­ney as a sim­i­lar case looms in Ok­la­homa.

“I know why this oc­curred, but is it a charge­able of­fense?” Lewin­ski asked, cit­ing sim­i­lar cases in medicine and air travel in which doc­tors or pi­lots make sim­i­larly con­fused split-sec­ond de­ci­sions. That’s “not for me to de­cide.”

Stephen Pingry Tulsa World

AN­DRE HAR­RIS, left, and Ai­dan Fra­ley, the brother and son of Eric Court­ney Har­ris, at a news con­fer­ence last week. The fam­ily crit­i­cized the Tulsa County Sher­iff’s Of­fice for not re­quest­ing an in­de­pen­dent in­quiry.

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