An Okfuskee County woman seeking to empanel a grand jury to investigate her boyfriend’s shooting death at the hands of a local deputy has by a razor-thin margin gathered the required number of signatures.
A court order filed Monday instructing the Okfuskee County Court Clerk’s Office to convene the grand jury notes the petitioner, Kelli Weimer, gathered 502 “qualified signatures,” two more than the mandatory minimum of 500.
The order states that potential grand jurors are to assemble at the Okfuskee County Courthouse on Aug. 8, where they will go through a selection process and eventually begin looking at evidence and hearing testimony.
Weimer filed the grand jury petition in May, about six months after her boyfriend, James Coale, was shot and killed by Okfuskee County Deputy Blake Frost.
Frost, the Okfuskee County Sheriff’s Office said, was investigating a stabbing and just happened to be looking for a pickup that matched the description of the one Coale was driving.
According to the statement Frost gave OCSO investigators, Coale, who was not the suspect in the stabbing (a man named Joshua Williams was later arrested in that case), tried to hit the deputy with his vehicle. Frost opened fire, striking Coale in the arm and back of the head, according to an autopsy report.
Coale died from the headshot.
Although the autopsy showed Coale was shot from behind, Okfuskee County District Attorney Max Cook declined to file charges against the deputy, announcing about three months later that the shooting was “regretful,” but that Frost was not guilty of any “cognizable criminal action.”
Frost, who resigned from the Sheriff’s Office shortly after the shooting, could not be reached for comment. Cook did not respond to requests for comment by The Frontier.
An indictment against Frost would be an extreme rarity in a state that has seen few criminal charges filed against officers involved in fatal on-duty shootings. For instance, Tulsa police have killed at least 11 people in the last year, but only one shooting has resulted in a criminal charge. That officer, Betty Shelby, was acquitted of first-degree manslaughter in May.
There has been only one recent conviction against an officer involved in an on-duty shooting. Reserve Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Robert Bates was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in 2016 after killing Eric Harris during a botched sting operation.
For Weimer, who spent 45 days canvassing her small county collecting signatures, the order to convene the grand jury represents a small victory.
“I feel proud of James’ mother, myself, and the few close friends/family that helped us accomplish this,” she said in a message to The Frontier. “It was quite a task! I’m also so thankful for everyone who helped, signed, and supported us along the way.”
For Okfuskee County officials, the grand jury proceeding brings some unease.
Court Clerk Sherri Foreman said 100 grand juror summonses (the amount required by Oklahoma law) would be sent out, and that she expects two-thirds of those summoned to appear at the courthouse Aug. 8 as her office seeks to convene the grand jury.
Ultimately, a judge will select 12 grand jurors and three alternate grand jurors.
Other than that, Foreman said, she’s mostly playing it by ear.
“I’ve never done a grand jury before,” she said. “One of the ladies who works for (District Judge Lawrence) Parish said she’s been here 25 years and has never seen a grand jury before.”
Foreman said she’s unsure how to fit the grand jury into Okfuskee County’s tiny trial budget. A recent jury trial session cost $6,000, she said, and the county only has the funds to hold two trial periods a year.
She said the state often works with court clerks who need additional money, though given Oklahoma’s budget problems, she can only hope the funds will be there if she needs them.
“I wouldn’t think they would turn us down if we needed the money for a grand jury, because that’s kind of a big deal,” she said. “But there are a lot of unknowns.”
Once seated, grand jurors meet in secret, and testimony given to them is private. They work together with the district attorney assigned to the case to question witnesses and to look over documents and records that may be helpful to them.
At least nine of the 12 grand jurors must agree on an indictment for a criminal charge to be filed. The grand jury finishes its duties by writing a report, which is given to the judge, who reads it in open court.
Who will present evidence to the grand jury?
It’s unclear if Cook, who did not respond to phone messages and e-mails asking for an interview, will be part of the grand jury process.
Given that Cook previously declined to file charges against Frost, Weimer’s attorney, Carla Stinnett, could ask Cook to recuse himself from the case.
Stinnett did not respond to a phone call seeking comment. In the 2015 grand jury that ultimately indicted former Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz, District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler recused himself from the proceedings. It was ultimately Rob Barris (Okmulgee County) and Kevin Buchanan (Washington County) who presented evidence to grand jurors and handled testimony from witnesses.
Court minutes state Parish sent Cook a letter on July 18, though it doesn’t describe what the letter’s contents were.