Defense attorneys for Betty Shelby rested their case just before noon on Tuesday, setting up Wednesday as the day jurors will decide the fate of the Tulsa police officer.
Shelby shot and killed Terence Crutcher last September. Crutcher, who is black, was unarmed, though Shelby and her attorneys have argued for months that his actions led the officer to believe he might have been armed.
Shelby was charged six days after the shooting with first-degree manslaughter, a conviction for which carries a minimum sentence of four years in prison.
The question of whether it is legal for a police officer to shoot someone based on the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that the person is armed has become the crux of Shelby’s trial.
Shelby’s attorneys have said that an officer who waits for a suspect to draw a gun before shooting in response is likely to be killed. Prosecutors have said that Shelby was too “fearful” and “emotional” during her encounter with Crutcher, and killed the unarmed man unnecessarily.
Dr. David Klinger, a former police officer turned academician, testified for the defense on Tuesday that Shelby’s decision to shoot Crutcher was justified, even if her assumption that he had a weapon was wrong.
His testimony was in line with the “action vs. reaction” angle Shelby’s defense has presented during the trial. Klinger said that if a person is giving off certain signals of noncompliance — in this case, Shelby has said Crutcher did not heed her commands to stop moving and get on the ground — that a “reasonable officer” can assume a weapon might exist.
And to wait for that weapon to be drawn before firing is “gambling with their life,” Klinger said.
“Some officers do take that gamble,” Klinger told defense attorney Scott Wood, “but they’re not required to.”
Prosecutor Kevin Gray, though, summed up Shelby’s actions that day as guesswork, saying that she shot Crutcher based on a faulty assumption that he might not only have a weapon in his vehicle, but that he could reach it, draw it, and fire before she could respond.
He asked Klinger if he truly thought it was proper for an officer to shoot before seeing the suspect draw a weapon.
“In narrow circumstances,” Klinger replied.
While seated at the witness stand, Klinger told Gray that if there were a weapon under the seat, Gray “would be a fool” to wait for Klinger to reach for it before shooting.
“You’d be dead,” Klinger said, having previously argued that even a tenth of a second in reaction time can mean life or death.
But Gray replied that there was no gun under the seat, nor was there any reason to believe one was there at all.
Walker testifies again
Tulsa Police Homicide Unit Sgt. Dave Walker, who took the stand for the third time in five days, testified Tuesday that Crutcher had warrants for his arrest at the time of the shooting, as well as prior criminal conduct that included allegations of obstructing and resisting officers.
Those statements were allowed into the trial, District Judge Doug Drummond ruled previously, because prosecutors had brought in witnesses who testified to Crutcher’s conduct in the hour or so prior to his shooting.
Walker also told McMurray that he would not have referred the case he had built against Shelby to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Walker testified last week that he was angered by District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler’s decision to charge Shelby without waiting for the full police investigatory packet.
And yet it’s not the first time Kunzweiler’s office has sided against an office that investigated itself following a fatal shooting. The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office in 2015 forwarded Kunzweiler a packet following the shooting of Eric Harris that recommended no charges against reserve deputy Robert Bates.
Kunzweiler charged Bates with second-degree manslaughter, and eventually earned a conviction and a maximum sentence against Bates.
Taser expert testifies
Prior to Klinger’s testimony, jurors heard from defense expert witness Howard Williams, a former Texas police officer who now teaches criminal justice classes at Texas State University.
Williams testified that he became “fascinated” with Tasers after receiving a grant to outfit his unit at the San Marcos Police Department with them in the early 2000s.
Williams said he had studied about 2,000 deaths of either suspects or police officers following “ineffective usage” of a Taser — meaning the suspect died as a result of the Taser use, or that the device did not result in an incapacitation and the suspect or a police officer was killed as a result.
Williams’ testimony appeared at odds with previous testimony in the trial. Officer Tyler Turnbough testified last week that he was armed with a Taser and was next to Shelby when Crutcher was shot. Turnbough said that he believed he and Shelby likely fired at Crutcher simultaneously.
Williams told defense attorneys that the helicopter footage of the incident appeared to show that Turnbough’s Taser prongs did not have an effect on Crutcher. The device has two prongs that are meant to separate in the air and strike someone in two different locations on the body, ideally incapacitating all the muscles in between.
Williams said Crutcher’s autopsy report did not note injuries that would likely be there if the skin was punctured by the prongs, and said that Crutcher’s body language in the video was not consistent with someone who had been Tased.
But, Kunzweiler noted on cross-examination, Turnbough testified that Crutcher went “up on his toes and seized up” after the Taser was fired. Images the jury saw earlier in the trial showed Taser prongs stuck in Crutcher’s shirt and pants.
“I’m more persuaded by what I see on video,” Williams said.
Kunzweiler also asked about a “sympathetic shooting,” the term for when one officer fires a weapon not based on the actions of the suspect, but on the noise created by another officer firing their weapon.
Tasers are not as loud as a handgun, Williams said, but they do “pop” when the prongs are expelled. Officers have been known to fire their weapon as a result of hearing that pop, Williams testified.
Defense attorneys rested their case just before noon on Tuesday, and both sides took the afternoon to finalize jury instructions prior to Wednesday’s closing arguments, which are expected to begin at 9 a.m.
That would mean the jury will likely begin deliberating by noon Wednesday, and Drummond warned them to be prepared to work through lunch and possibly dinner.
Your financial support for our investigative journalism is now tax deductible. To become a Friend of The Frontier, click here.