Last fall, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler sat on a panel at Oklahoma City’s Tower Theater that included Patricia Spottedcrow, an Oklahoma woman who had become the poster child for the state’s tough stance on drugs.
In 2010 Spottedcrow was sentenced to 12 years in prison for selling a $31 bag of marijuana to an informant.
The event in Oklahoma City was hosted by The Atlantic and called “Defining Justice.” It was focused on the inequity that sent women in Oklahoma to prison. Needless to say, it had a clear pro-criminal justice reform bent.
The crowd that day was largely female and to them, Spottedcrow had become a martyr — someone swept up by a cruel justice system that dumped her in prison for a minor offense.
At one point in the near hour-long discussion, Spottedcrow took offense to something Kunzweiler said about rural communities where drug offenders are often connected to other crimes.
“I’ve never been in trouble,” she said. “This was my first offense and this still happened to me … there were no other crimes, this was it.”
“I’m sure that maybe the local law enforcement might have a different story,” Kunzweiler said, leaving the crowd shocked.
The temperature of the room is not that important to Kunzweiler, a longtime prosecutor who is about to wrap up his first term as Tulsa County’s District Attorney. Agree or disagree with him, he sticks to his guns.
“I’m Catholic, I’m Christian, my focus isn’t on how do I appease people, I focus on, ‘Am I doing what God wants me to do, am I serving my fellow man,’” Kunzweiler said in a recent interview with The Frontier. “It’s not this life I’m focusing on, I’m focusing on the other part of the equation, all of eternity … so what’s the best way to do that? That’s to focus on truth and to do the job that’s expected of you.”
Kunzweiler’s first term took a lot of focus. About four months after he was sworn in, Shannon Kepler, an off-duty Tulsa Police Department officer, shot and killed Jeremy Lake, a mixed-race teen who was dating Kepler’s daughter.
Kepler was charged with first-degree murder. After three years and three mistrials, Kepler was convicted of first-degree manslaughter.
In April 2015 Kunzweiler filed a second-degree manslaughter charge against Robert Bates, a reserve Tulsa County deputy who accidentally shot and killed a restrained unarmed man during an undercover gun sting. The following year Bates was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. Kunzweiler didn’t try that case (Kevin Gray, a top assistant district attorney and John David Luton, Kunzweiler’s first assistant at the time handled the trial), but nevertheless his office became one of only a handful across the nation to send a law enforcement officer to prison for an on-duty shooting.
Then in 2016, in the most contentious case of his term, Kunzweiler charged Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby with first-degree manslaughter for killing Terence Crutcher during a traffic stop.
Kunzweiler was applauded by many who saw the killing as another case of police brutality on unarmed black men, and he was railed against by law enforcement supporters who viewed the criminal charge as an overreach and a reaction to political pressure.
The local police union went as far as to file an ethics complaint against Kunzweiler (the Oklahoma Bar Association declined to take up the complaint).
In 2017 Betty Shelby was acquitted by a jury following a week-long trial.
Despite a resume that would stack up against any prosecutor who takes a tough stance against law enforcement, Kunzweiler said it didn’t happen by design. He said that in each of those cases he faced a tough choice, but ultimately filed the charges he thought were appropriate.
“I’m sure there’s folks that might disagree, but if you were to take away two to three cases during my administration, I’ve always said I’m one of the most pro-law enforcement people that are out there,” he said. “But I’m also not naive enough to think that good people can’t do some things that are contrary to the law.”
Kunzweiler said he doesn’t focus on the past — once a case ends, it’s over, and with about 7,000 felony cases a year being filed in Tulsa County, there’s always a next one.
But he knows it will be difficult to handle one of the busiest courthouses in the state and campaign at the same time. He won’t focus on a potential next term because there’s too much stuff to do right now.
“I’m worried about an uptick in robberies,” he said. “I want my public to feel safe. I shouldn’t be trying to fall back on a comfort zone, I need to constantly be challenging myself and every other prosecutor in this office to really stay on point and don’t fall into a sense of ease.
“If someone is going to look over whatever legacy I’m going to have, they may say “There goes Steve Kunzweiler, he’s kind of a hard-ass, but you always knew he was telling you the truth.’ I think that’s the best measure for me.”
Who will run against Kunzweiler
With about four months until the filing deadline, it’s still unclear whether Kunzweiler will have an opponent come June’s primary. The Frontier spent weeks asking potential and rumored candidates to gauge their interest in running for district attorney. No one claimed to be interested in the job.
Both men who opposed Kunzweiler in 2014 said they would not be running against him in 2018. Fred Jordan, who lost on election night to Kunzweiler said he had “no desire” to run again.
Brian Crain, a former state senator who pulled out of the 2014 race voluntarily due to a technicality that left him ineligible, said he would not run again. Instead he has filed to run for associate district judge in Tulsa County, records show.
Jared Lindsey, the chairman of Tulsa’s Fraternal Order of Police, said that while his organization would not support Kunzweiler, they would also not recruit anyone to run against him.
“We felt like that would be a little out of bounds,” Lindsey said of any potential recruitment.
Lindsey filed the ethics complaint against Kunzweiler in the days leading up to the Betty Shelby trial, attended much of the trial and posted pro-Shelby video recaps of much of the testimony to the FOP’s page. He also shared videos siding with Shelby’s version of events throughout the trial, something that was criticized at the time by people alleging the FOP was trying to influence jurors.
Lindsey said he hoped Kunzweiler would draw a strong opponent.
“If someone steps up to run and they’re decent we would support them,” he said. “I don’t see any way we would support Steve.”
Perhaps the most-rumored candidate, Community Service Council Incarceration Reduction Division Director Tammy Westcott, said it was “flattering” her name had come up as a potential candidate, but that she was focused on her work at the CSC.
Westcott was an assistant district attorney under former DA Tim Harris and represented the DA’s office in Drug Court, DUI Court, Veterans’ Court, Mental Health Court, and in the Women in Recovery Program.
“This is an absolute passion that started with my work in this area at the DA’s office eight years ago,” Westcott said in her statement. “At the Community Service Council, we are committed to seeing more offenders receiving treatment along with reducing Department of Corrections receptions from Tulsa County. It is also a great part of my career to assist Veterans Treatment Courts and Drug Courts across the nation through training and technical assistance visits.”