Following four hours of back and forth from defense attorneys for Robert Bates and prosecutors, a Tulsa County District judge ruled Tuesday that prison time for Bates was “a legitimate and moral consequence” for killing Eric Harris last year.
Bates, convicted last month on a second-degree manslaughter charge, mistakenly shot Harris during an undercover gun sting in north Tulsa on April 2, 2015, after Harris fled arrest and was tackled by pursuing deputies. Bates’ attorneys argued during a trial last month that the shooting was an excusable mistake, but a jury saw differently, and recommended Bates be sentenced to four years, the maximum punishment under the law.
District Judge Bill Musseman agreed on Tuesday, sentencing the 74-year-old former reserve deputy to four years in prison. Bates will receive credit for time served (he has spent the past month in the Tulsa Jail). Because second-degree manslaughter is not an 85 percent crime (many violent crimes, such as murder or rape, require 85 percent of the sentences to be served before parole becomes possible), Bates could be free from prison long before his four years are up.
But for now, he will be in Department of Corrections custody, despite the pleas from his family and attorneys, who described the insurance broker as being too old and too frail to survive prison life.
The Oklahoma Insurance Department has initiated the process of stripping Bates of his insurance license.
As a former law enforcement officer, Bates will likely be segregated from the normal prison population, no matter what prison he ends up at following intake. That segregation may leave him alone in a cell 23 hours a day, with only one hour of monitored time each day outside. Dr. Fred McNeer, who said he had been Bates’ primary physician for nearly 30 years, said that type of incarceration would be a “death sentence.”
McNeer was one of several witnesses who testified Tuesday before Musseman sentenced Bates, and he said his former patient would likely not survive life in prison because of his many medical needs. However, that opinion seemed to be based on a late April visit to jail where McNeer saw Bates, the only time he had seen him since last month’s conviction. Musseman said he had personally talked to Sheriff Vic Regalado to make sure Bates was receiving the numerous medications he takes daily, and he felt comfortable that those jail medication issues had been taken care of.
Other testimony came from Lance Ramsey and Joseph Byars, two Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office deputies who were on the Harris raid with Bates; Lee Clayton, who conducted the state-sponsored pre-sentence investigation on Bates; Stephen Donnelly, who was hired by Bates’ attorney Clark Brewster to conduct a private pre-sentence investigation into Bates; Rod Baker, an investigator hired by Brewster to find and attempt to interview jurors from Bates’ trial last month (his testimony was not allowed by Musseman); and Bates’ wife, Charlotte, who spoke publicly for the first time.
She called her husband of 25 years “a wonderful man,” and took the public to task for taking Bates for granted.
“Everyone in this courtroom has been touched by this man while you were tucked away in your beds,” she said.
She finished her testimony by turning to Musseman and asking the judge for leniency.
“I’m begging you, he’s a good man, he has suffered, and he will suffer until his last breath for taking the life of Eric Harris,” she told Musseman. “Please do not put him in prison, I’m begging you.”
But her appeals, along with those of the dozens of community supporters who wrote letters asking Musseman to be merciful to Bates, were unheeded, as were Bates’ appeals to the judge for sympathy.
Bates, sporting a new mustache, looked healthier Tuesday as he walked into the courtroom than he did during his bail hearing earlier this month, when he appeared to barely be able to walk. When he spoke to Musseman on Tuesday, he did so without a microphone, and his words were not audible to the gallery. Through tears, he did appear to tell the judge that he was “very remorseful.”
Brewster had hoped for Bates to receive no prison time, and argued that his client would be better served by probation, with some combination of house arrest and community service as a possibility. He attempted to sway Musseman by presenting evidence of hundreds of second-degree manslaughter cases from the last 40 years of Oklahoma’s history.
He said that the prison sentence for Bates was the first time in Oklahoma’s recent history that a defendant did not receive probation for such a charge, though it’s unclear how accurate that claim was. Musseman, after much deliberation, did not allow that evidence (Brewster said his firm spent 300-400 hours accumulating the data) to be presented, and it obviously did not factor into his decision.
Brewster claimed that Bates’ case was like so many other second-degree manslaughter cases that ended in no harsher a punishment than probation, however he often referenced past cases to Musseman that were not similar — in one case he referenced, the person who was shot didn’t die; In another, the officer who fired the shot was not charged — and Musseman appeared to have little patience for the evidence.
“What I’m saying,” he told Brewster after a long exchange, “is that the data might be misleading.”
“Mr. Bates on that day killed a person because he didn’t know what weapon he had in his hands,” Musseman said. “Period … He put himself in that position voluntarily.”
Harris’ ex-wife and son also testified, telling Musseman that while they had forgiven Bates, they believed there needed to be consequences for his actions.
Cathy Fraley, Harris’ ex-wife, said she met Harris in 1995 and that despite the “demons” he battled, she never gave up hope that the two would eventually be together forever.
Referring to the four-year sentence Bates faced and was ultimately sentenced to, she said it was nothing compared to what her ex-husband received.
“If someone told me Eric was going away for four years, but I would be able to see and talk to him, I’d take that in a heartbeat,” she said while giving her victim impact statement. “Four years doesn’t seem like anything compared to a lifetime.”
Harris’ son, Aidan Fraley, said that he had hoped to move to Oklahoma to be with his father after graduating high school this month. He said his father would have been extremely proud to see his son graduating from high school, something Harris never accomplished.
Instead, Fraley said his father had to watch the graduation “seated in heaven.”
“I wanted to show him his son could do right and graduate high school,” he said. “It broke my heart (that he couldn’t be there.)”
Brewster said following the hearing that he plans on appealing the sentence to a higher court. His motion earlier Tuesday for a new trial was denied by Musseman.