Frenchel Johnson spent Tuesday trying to prove to a Tulsa District Court judge that she was legally married to the man she lived with for 16 years.
Using scraps of Facebook postings, old greeting cards and testimony from friends and family, Johnson’s attorney tried to prove to District Judge Kurt Glassco that Johnson’s relationship with Terence Crutcher qualified as a common-law marriage in Oklahoma. The couple had three children together and Crutcher raised Johnson’s son, now 17, as his own.
Crutcher died Sept. 16 after he was shot by a Tulsa police officer who came upon his SUV parked in the middle of a north Tulsa street.
Police video shows Crutcher walking slowly away from the officer with his hands up before he was shot. The officer, Betty Shelby, has been charged with first-degree manslaughter and a plea of not guilty has been entered.
Glassco heard about five hours of testimony from eight witnesses Tuesday in a hearing to determine whether Crutcher was married to Johnson under the state’s common law. (Oklahoma is one of about 15 that allow common-law marriages.)
The hearing will continue Wednesday, after which Glassco is expected to issue a ruling.
If Glassco rules that Johnson was Crutcher’s common-law wife, she stands to inherit half of his estate, including any proceeds from a civil lawsuit over his death. Crutcher’s parents, the Rev. Joey and Leanne Crutcher, are opposing her motion to be named special administrator of the estate.
Though Johnson and Crutcher had three children together, the Crutchers claim they should not be considered a married couple. Terence Crutcher did not live with Johnson and did not claim to the public that the two were married, an essential element in common-law marriage, attorneys for the Crutchers claim.
When testimony concluded for the day Tuesday, Glassco said he was most interested in testimony by Tulsa attorney Gregory Denney and “certain aspects” of Johnson’s testimony.
Denney testified he did legal work for the family for more than a decade. He said he often heard Crutcher and Johnson refer to each other as husband and wife. Denney said he also heard other family members refer to them that way.
“I do recall Terence saying that and I recall Joey senior saying that,” Denney said, referring to Terence Crutcher’s father.
During cross examination, attorney Melvin Hall asked Denney whether all of the conversations occurred in the privacy of his office. Denney responded that the family also gathered in his lobby and talked to his receptionist “and at that time they announced publicly that they were married.”
Johnson’s landlord, Tye Hardy, testified Tuesday that Terence Crutcher lived with Johnson for six years at the house in the 5500 block of North Hartford Avenue.
Hardy said they had a tenant-landlord relationship, and when picking up rent money he on several occasions sat down with the family at the dinner table to chat.
Hardy said the couple had a loving relationship, and he couldn’t recall Terence Crutcher not living at the home, except during the times he was incarcerated.
During nearly two hours on the witness stand, Johnson testified about all aspects of her life with Crutcher. Her attorney, Dan Smolen, started off the testimony by asking: “Are you Terence Crutcher’s wife?”
“Yes,” she answered.
Johnson said the two lived together with their children as a family for about 16 years. Asked by Smolen whether Crutcher’s parents had ever rejected her, Johnson struggled to keep her composure, answering no.
“It just hurt real bad,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. Joey Crutcher, seated in the jury box with his wife, held his head in his hands as he listened.
Smolen asked Johnson how she has coped with the loss of the man she loved after 16 years as a couple.
“He was a good person. He was my backbone. He was my soulmate,” she said.
Johnson also discussed the wedding band and engagement ring that she said Terence Crutcher gave her in 2012. Smolen pointed out to Glassco that the engagement ring is engraved with their names inside the band.
“The record will reflect that Ms. Johnson has handed me both an engagement ring and what appears to be a wedding band,” Glassco said, squinting at the rings and trying to make out the engraved names.
During cross-examination, attorneys for the Crutchers showed Johnson a series of more than two dozen documents. On the records, Johnson and Crutcher are not listed as spouses and some list separate addresses for the two.
Johnson said she and Crutcher filled out their tax returns as single head of household on the advice of a church member “so we would get more money.” He had used his parents’ address on Denver Avenue since high school as a permanent mailing address, she said.
Glassco appointed Johnson the special administrator of the estate Sept. 23 but rescinded that order in a Sept. 30 hearing, assigning Tulsa attorney Austin Bond to serve as interim special administrator until a decision is made.
At that hearing, Johnson said she wants her uncle, Win Case, to serve in her place.
The Crutchers have argued that Johnson is unfit to be administrator of the estate, referencing her criminal record and her alleged marital status.
The issue of who serves as administrator of the estate is important because only the administrator will have legal standing to bring a lawsuit against the city in Terence Crutcher’s death. Also, about $167,000 has been raised in aGoFundMe account intended to benefit his immediate family.
The Frontier has asked attorneys for the family for additional information about how funds in the GoFundMe account have been spent. Initially, funds were to be sent to the Terrence Crutcher estate in care of attorney Benjamin Crump, a Florida-based attorney who represents the family.
When Smolen notified the attorneys to stop claiming they represent the estate, the GoFundMe account was changed to state that funds should be sent to Tiffany Crutcher, Terence Crutcher’s twin sister who lives in Alabama.
Facebook posts debated
During Tuesday’s hearing, attorneys for both parties often pointed to the couple’s Facebook accounts for a glimpse into how they presented themselves to the public.
Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, who represents Joey and Leanna Crutcher, asked several witnesses why Terence Crutcher and Frenchel Johnson would list themselves as single if they were married.
Under cross-examination, a long-time friend of the couple, Sherona Sellers, told Solomon-Simmons she didn’t pay attention to relationship statuses on Facebook. Solomon-Simmons then referenced a photo of the couple on Terence Crutcher’s account and a comment that said “make her your wife.” Terence Crutcher answered “lol already,” Solomon-Simmons said.
Smolen also pointed to the couple’s Facebook accounts while Sellers was on the stand. He showed her a photo Johnson posted in 2015 with the caption “Pic of my husband and I,” that had 114 “likes.” “Did anyone ever say, ‘Wait, you’re not married,” Smolen asked.
“No one questioned it in the photo comments,” Sellers said. Terence Crutcher never opposed the photo or its caption, she said.
After Terence Crutcher’s death his profile was made into a memorial account.
Smolen also referenced a friend’s post to Johnson’s account that said “R.I.P. to your husband.”
“No one opposed it,” Sellers repeated.
Solomon-Simmons pointed out to Sellers that Terence Crutcher never posted they were married.
Hall again brought up the Facebook relationship status while cross-examining Johnson.
“You know Terence Crutcher listed himself as single, right,” Hall asked.
Johnson said she knew but never asked him to change his status.
In closing statements Tuesday evening, Smolen said Johnson didn’t care about Terence Crutcher’s Facebook relationship status because “she’s not worried when she’s wearing a ring from him.”
Solomon-Simmons argued Terence Crutcher didn’t present himself publicly as married to Johnson, and the two chose not to list themselves as married in government documents.
“When Terence Crutcher had the opportunity, he always said he was single,” Solomon-Simmons said, referencing the documents and the Facebook profile.
‘Take care of my niece’
Johnson’s uncle, Win Case, was the last witness Smolen called to the stand Tuesday. Case is an assistant basketball coach at Middle Tennessee State University.
Case was also a standout player at Nathan Hale High School and played two seasons at Oklahoma State University before beginning his coaching career.
During his testimony, Case said in the roughly 16 years he knew Terence Crutcher, he held himself out to Johnson’s family as her husband.
“He’s always been there for Frenchel and the kids,” Case said.
He said he never knew his niece to be with anyone else and there was no doubt in his mind they were husband and wife.
When Case’s sister, who was Johnson’s mother, was murdered in 2004, Terence Crutcher sang at her funeral, Case said.
When Case was leaving the funeral to return to Oklahoma City, he grabbed Terence Crutcher and said, “Please take care of my niece.” He said Crutcher promised that he would and he kept that promise.
“They were both very committed to raising the kids in a very positive matter,” Case said.