Off-duty po­lice of­fi­cer faces third trial

57-year-old claims daugh­ter’s black boyfriend was armed and fa­tal shoot­ing was self-de­fense

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Justin Juozapavicius

TULSA, OKLA.» A for­mer Oklahoma po­lice of­fi­cer who said he was try­ing to pro­tect his daugh­ter when he fa­tally shot her black boyfriend in 2014 is on trial for the third time in seven months, af­ter ju­rors in pre­vi­ous tri­als couldn’t de­cide whether he was guilty of mur­der.

Ex­perts say Shan­non Ke­pler’s case il­lus­trates a broad un­will­ing­ness to con­vict po­lice of­fi­cers, par­tic­u­larly in cases in­volv­ing fa­tal shoot­ings — and even when the lines be­tween of­fi­cer and civil­ian are blurred.

Ke­pler was off duty when he shot 19-year-old Jere­mey Lake in Au­gust 2014. Lake was walk­ing with Ke­pler’s daugh­ter when Ke­pler ap­proached them near the home of Lake’s aunt. Ke­pler later claimed Lake was armed and that he was act­ing in self-de­fense, but po­lice didn’t find a weapon on Lake or at the scene.

While one jury found the 57-year-old for­mer Tulsa po­lice of­fi­cer guilty of recklessly us­ing a firearm, it was un­able to agree on whether that crime led to the far more se­ri­ous con­vic­tion of first-de­gree mur­der.

Al­though Ke­pler is white, ex­perts say the in­sti­tu­tional def­er­ence shown to law of­fi­cers isn’t about an of­fi­cer’s race. For ex­am­ple, ju­rors in Mil­wau­kee last month ac­quit­ted a black of­fi­cer who fa­tally shot a black man who ran from a traf­fic stop hold­ing a gun. Dominique Heag­ganBrown shot Sylville Smith in the arm as he ap­peared to be throw­ing away his gun and again in the chest af­ter he fell.

“Po­lice of­fi­cers are viewed in Amer­ica as they can do no wrong, black or white,” said Tulsa civil rights ac­tivist Marq Lewis, who de­scribed what he called a “cul­tural mar­ket­ing” of the in­fal­li­ble, crime­bust­ing po­lice of­fi­cer.

“They sac­ri­fice their lives ev­ery day; when you keep hear­ing that over and over, that is al­ways go­ing to be in the back of your mind,” Lewis said.

“They’re the first point of con­tact to deal with evil on the streets.

“This is an Amer­i­can per­cep­tion prob­lem,” he said.

The in­her­ent, pow­er­ful bias to back the badge is in­stilled at an early age and al­most im­pos­si­ble to undo, ex­perts say. Despite pub­lic out­cry in re­cent years over po­lice shoot­ings through­out the U.S., few of­fi­cers are pros­e­cuted, and even fewer are con­victed.

“A ju­ror might say, ‘I know that per­son shot that per­son, but I kind of like that per­son,’” said Lou Manza, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Le­banon Val­ley Col­lege in An­nville, Pa. “It re­ally has a lot to do with not just the na­ture of the crime, but what’s go­ing on in the heads of the ju­rors you pick.”

Even with video — whether from a squad car, an of­fi­cer’s body cam­era or a by­stander’s cell­phone — all the rules change once an of­fi­cer is in the court­room, said David N. Dorf­man, a crim­i­nal law pro­fes­sor at Pace Univer­sity and a for­mer de­fense at­tor­ney in New York.

“This goes back to Rod­ney King,” said Dorf­man, ref­er­enc­ing the video recorded by a by­stander of the 1991 beat­ing of taxi driver Rod­ney King by four Los An­ge­les po­lice of­fi­cers, who kicked and hit him dozens of times, even af­ter he was on the ground. The four of­fi­cers were ac­quit­ted in crim­i­nal court 1992.

In Ke­pler’s case, there is no video, just the ac­counts of wit­nesses, in­clud­ing Lake’s girl­friend, who was 18 when the shoot­ing hap­pened. Ke­pler has pleaded not guilty, and his third trial started Fri­day.

Lawyers for Ke­pler didn’t re­turn sev­eral voice mes­sages seek­ing com­ment this past week, but dur­ing pre­vi­ous tri­als they pointed out that wit­nesses gave con­tra­dic­tory tes­ti­mony.

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