As testimony begins, Robert Bates trial hits a few snags

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During opening arguments in Robert Bates’ criminal trial Wednesday, a prosecutor said Eric Harris “made a lifetime of bad decisions” but noted that Bates made some choices of his own the day he shot Harris.

Bates, a 74-year-old insurance company executive and longtime friend of former Sheriff Stanley Glanz, wasn’t supposed to be there the day Harris was shot. He also wasn’t supposed to be carrying a .357 laser sighted revolver on duty. And he wasn’t supposed to fire it into the back of a man on the ground.

“Mr. Bates made some choices to get to North Harvard. … He put a bullet in the back of Eric Harris and killed him,” said Assistant Tulsa County District Attorney Kevin Gray.

Former Reserve Deputy Robert Bates
Former Reserve Deputy Robert Bates

While Bates’ defense attorney plans to dispute Harris’ death was caused by the gunshot, Gray noted that Harris suffered a punctured lung after Bates shot him. Bates has said the shooting was an accidental mixup of his Taser and gun. However, the Taser was bright yellow, tucked into a pocket on his chest and required a different action to fire. 

A ruling by District Judge William Musseman allowed jurors to hear and view the entire publicly released video of Harris’ shooting. The tape included a comment by one deputy to Harris that received national attention: “Fuck your breath.”

Gray told jurors that Eric Harris “had his hands cuffed behind his back. He’s saying, ‘I can’t breathe. He shot me! He shot me!’ ”

Harris was still handcuffed, sitting up and had a collapsed lung when first responders arrived, Gray said.

Bates is being tried on a second-degree manslaughter charge in Harris’ death during an undercover gun sting April 2, 2015.

Gray’s statements came during opening arguments after a jury was selected in Bates’ trial Wednesday. The 14-member jury (including two alternates) is all white, with eight men and six women. Most of the jurors appear to be over 40 years old.

Musseman has decided not to use jurors’ names in open court, possibly to spare them from any publicity or criticism based on their verdict.

Though there were two black prospective jurors, they were all eliminated by defense attorneys for various reasons. The death of Harris, an unarmed black man, came just two days before Walter Scott was gunned down April 4, 2015, by a police officer in South Carolina.

Harris’ death came 10 days before the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray suffered a broken neck during an arrest and transport in a police van. His death sparked protests that sometimes turned violent.

Bates’ defense attorney, Clark Brewster, said during opening arguments that Bates was helping the sheriff’s office as a member of the Drug Task Force.

“Their job is to take drugs and guns off the street and every day they do that, they take a risk,” Brewster told jurors.

He frequently referred to Eric as “Forty,” which Brewster said was a street name that turned up in Eric’s text messages to an undercover officer.

Brewster pointed out that Harris had recently been released from prison and had several criminal convictions on his record.

When Harris ran from undercover deputies moving in to arrest him, Brewster said Bates believed he needed to use his Taser to fully subdue Harris.

“When Bob yelled, ‘Taser, Taser,’ he mistakenly, accidentally had a gun instead of his Taser,” Brewster said.

The defense plans to call expert witnesses to testify about the issue of stress on decision making and Harris’ cause of death. Brewster said Harris’ autopsy notes underlying heart issues, which he said were responsible for Harris’ death, not Bates’ .38-caliber bullet.

Deputy Lance Ramsey testified late Wednesday about the undercover operations that day. He said Bates called him the night before to ask “if something was going on the next day.”

Though the 73-year-old insurance executive’s name wasn’t listed on the operations plan for the gun sting, Ramsey said he was added to the group of nine deputies assigned to it. Ramsey said Bates’ job was to carry the “less-lethal” weapons, including Tasers and pepper ball guns.

Court rules block access 

Harris’ family and all but one member of the media were locked out of Musseman’s courtroom for most of Ramsey’s testimony Wednesday.

Musseman has instituted a number of unusual rules, including that spectators (including relatives of the victim and defendant) who leave for any reason cannot return to the courtroom until a witness is finished testifying or jurors are taking a break.

Spectators took what Musseman said would be a 10-minute break Wednesday afternoon. When reporters, including for The Frontier, tried to return after nine minutes, Tulsa County Sheriff’s Deputies refused to allow them in the courtroom.

Several members of the national media were excluded from the courtroom, including a crew from CNN and a reporter for Reuters. 

Reporters also asked Sheriff Vic Regalado and Court Administrator Vicki Cox for help in modifying the rules but were told to talk to Musseman.

 At 5 p.m. Wednesday as two television reporters were doing live broadcast reports, Musseman released the jurors for the day. Deputies then confronted reporters for stations KTUL and KJRH in the midst of their live shots, ordering them to “stop filming” so jurors wouldn’t hear them discussion the case.

Musseman also requested a metal detector outside his courtroom and all spectators are searched extensively, which required more than 20 minutes to complete following lunch.

It’s unclear why the judge has instituted such high security for the trial of a 74-year-old insurance executive on a second-degree manslaughter charge. Though the case is a high-profile one, the sheriff’s office has not reported any threats or unusual security concerns.

Security for the trial is far higher than for high-profile murder cases such as the Fairmont Terrace homicides, the Neal Sweeney contract killing and the Bever brothers. 

Problems have also resulted because of limited seating in Musseman’s courtroom. He has said about 35 people can fit in the courtroom and some people have been turned away due to lack of space. Meanwhile, a large courtroom on a floor above the courtroom appeared to be available.


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Ziva Branstetter

Editor in Chief / Staff Writer

Ziva maintains she was always too nosy to be anything other than a reporter. Though she's on a new adventure with The Frontier, she spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, making politicians nervous and making sure readers got the truth. Contact: ziva@readfrontier.com or 918-520-0406.
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