When Eric Harris was shot by a Tulsa County Sheriff’s reserve deputy in April, he was captured on video selling a gun to an undercover officer before he fled, was tackled and shot.
The district judge presiding over the manslaughter trial for the former reserve deputy who shot Harris never disclosed that he twice worked as a divorce attorney in cases involving the undercover officer captured on that video, an investigation by The Frontier has found.
After The Frontier raised questions about potential conflicts of interest involving District Judge James Caputo in the Robert Bates case, a hearing has been scheduled in the case Friday morning.
In a disclosure he filed in Bates’ case, Caputo did not mention his past representation of the witness, Tulsa County Sheriff’s Deputy Lance Ramsey. A video of the shooting, which gained national attention, begins with Ramsey and Harris sitting in a pickup truck discussing the transaction.
Through a clerk, Caputo declined an interview request by The Frontier Tuesday and did not respond to questions emailed to him. Ramsey also could not be reached for comment.
Caputo is presiding over hearings involving Bates, a former Tulsa County Sheriff’s reserve deputy charged in the April 2 shooting of Eric Harris during an undercover gun buy.
Before his election as a district judge in 2010, Caputo worked as an attorney handling divorce and criminal cases.
Records show Caputo represented Ramsey in two divorce cases, appearing at multiple hearings in Tulsa District Court between 2000 and 2004. Prosecutors have listed Ramsey as a witness in Bates’ manslaughter case.
Bates, 74, is a friend and former campaign manager for Sheriff Stanley Glanz and served on a drug task force as a volunteer reserve deputy. He is charged with second-degree manslaughter in Harris’ death after reportedly mixing up his Taser and gun.
As the undercover officer who bought a 9 mm handgun from Harris, Ramsey would be a key witness in Bates’ trial.
Harris was a convicted felon and fled when he saw deputies moving in to arrest him. The video ends with Harris lying on the ground after he had been shot and saying he can’t breathe.
Caputo is listed as the plaintiff’s attorney in Ramsey’s 1999 and 2004 divorce cases. He appeared at hearings in both cases simultaneously in 2004 when Ramsey sought to modify terms of the first divorce.
The state code of judicial conduct states that “a judge should disclose on the record information that the judge believes the parties or their lawyers might reasonably consider relevant to a possible motion for disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no basis for disqualification.”
Caputo filed a judicial disclosure on April 22 that he worked as a Tulsa County Sheriff’s deputy from 1993 through 1999, except for nearly a year’s break during 1995. He also states that his daughter is a civilian employee with the sheriff’s office and that he has known Glanz for 23 years.
However, Caputo did not disclose a his prior work as an attorney for Ramsey, who had already been listed as a witness in the case.
Caputo also failed to disclose that he served as a reserve deputy for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office at the same time as Bates, in 2007 and 2008. In his disclosure, Caputo states that he had no relationship — personal or professional — with Bates.
The state judicial code of conduct requires a judge to recuse from a case “in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
Another provision of the judicial code of conduct states that judges should disqualify if they have a relative with an “economic interest in the subject matter” of the proceeding. Caputo has disclosed that his daughter, Kathryn Caputo, was hired in 2013 as a civil clerk for the sheriff’s office and is paid $28,296 annually, as of May.
Caputo said during a hearing in the case that he can serve impartially despite his former employment as a deputy and his daughter’s current employment. The judge has noted that neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys have asked him to recuse. The state’s judicial code of conduct does not require such a request for a recusal to occur.
In a letter to District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, an attorney for Harris’ family asks the DA’s office to seek Caputo’s recusal.
“It is my opinion that the circumstances surrounding the Bates criminal case require Judge Caputo’s disqualification,” states the letter, sent to Kunzweiler Thursday by attorney Dan Smolen. “As the Oklahoma Supreme Court has reasoned: ‘Where there are circumstances that cause doubts as to a judge’s partiality, it is the judge’s duty to disqualify, notwithstanding the judge’s personal belief that he or she is impartial.’ “
The letter states that Harris’ family has a direct interest in Bates’ criminal case under state law, which allows victims to seek restitution.
“I believe that the District Attorney’s Office must formally request that Judge Caputo recuse himself from the Bates case. If your office will not seek Judge Caputo’s recusal, I will intervene in the criminal case on behalf of the Estate and file a formal motion to disqualify Judge Caputo.”
On Tuesday, a citizens group called We The People Oklahoma issued a statement calling on Caputo to recuse from Bates’ case. The group successfully petitioned to empanel a grand jury, which indicted Glanz on two misdemeanors related to his official conduct.
In addition to the judge’s ties to the sheriff’s office and Ramsey, Caputo’s campaign fund has received multiple contributions from attorneys with Brewster and DeAngelis, the law firm founded by Bates’ attorney, Clark Brewster.
Records show Friends of James Caputo 2010 received $1,000 campaign contribution from Clark Brewster and multiple contributions from attorneys in Brewster’s firm. Caputo was unopposed for re-election last year.
Most judges receive campaign contributions from attorneys who may appear before them.
The state judicial code says a judge should recuse from a case if “the judge knows or learns … that a party, a party’s lawyer, or the law firm of a party’s lawyer has within the previous four (4) years made aggregate contributions to the judge’s campaign in an amount that a reasonable person would believe could affect the fairness of the judge’s consideration of a case involving the party, the party’s lawyer or the law firm of the party’s lawyer. ”
While the contributions fell outside of the time window specificed by the state’s judicial code, it also states the judge “should consider what the public perception would be as to such contributions affecting the judge’s ability to be fair to the parties.”
“Contributions within the limits allowed by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission will not normally require disqualification unless other factors are present,” the code states.
Kunzweiler said earlier this week he has not filed a motion asking Caputo to recuse from the case because the judge has said he can be impartial.
“Judge Caputo has represented in public that he does not feel that he has a conflict. I’m an officer of the court and if I truly felt that the judge would be conflicted I would do it.”
However when informed by The Frontier Thursday that Caputo had twice served as Ramsey’s attorney, Kunzweiler said he would ask for a hearing.
“The information you have provided appears to be something which should be addressed with the court,” he said via email. “I will see if I can get the matter added to Judge Caputo’s docket.”
Brewster said the question of whether Bates and Caputo had any contact while serving as reserves and whether the situation could be viewed as an apparent conflict was “a fair question.”
As it did with Bates and many other reserve deputies, the sheriff’s office listed some training records missing from Caputo’s reserve file.
As part of a 2009 investigation into whether Bates was shown favoritism at TCSO and had required training, Sgt. Paul Tryon reviewed training files of some reserve deputies. Bates’ complete 287-page internal affairs report contains Tryon’s report to Sgt. Rob Lillard on his findings and Tryon’s notes on what he found.
The notes show that Caputo had only a partial background check on file and no record existed of his written test to become a reserve.
It was also unknown whether Caputo completed his required mental health review, called an MMPI, because those reports were kept by the undersheriff, Tryon’s report states.
As a former certified deputy, Caputo would have met many of the requirements already to become a reserve but it is unclear whether he met all requirements.