Tulsa County District Judge James Caputo recused Friday from presiding over a former reserve deputy’s manslaughter case, following an investigation by The Frontier into apparent undisclosed conflicts of interest.
Caputo’s action followed a request by District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, who praised the judge’s decision to step aside from the controversial case. A new judge will be randomly assigned to preside over hearings for Robert Bates, charged with second-degree manslaughter in the April death of Eric Harris during a gun sting.
“This was an issue that had been brewing. …This is probably the best decision for the community,” Kunzweiler said.
Caputo held a closed meeting Friday morning with Kunzweiler and attorney Corbin Brewster, who represents Bates, before recusing from the case. The hearing was not listed on the docket for Bates’ criminal case and Caputo was visibly perturbed at the large number of reporters and activists who showed up for it.
“I don’t know what all the hullabaloo is about, ” Caputo said, explaining that the hearing was just a “status hearing and that’s what we’re going to talk about.”
Instead, the judge ended the hearing and went into chambers for a meeting. Then he returned to open court and recused himself before reporters and others attendees were notified that the hearing was back in open court.
Caputo’s recusal comes after an investigation by The Frontier into apparent conflicts of interest.
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.”
The Frontier reported Tuesday that the judge was a Tulsa County reserve deputy during 2007 and 2008, when Bates also served in the volunteer program.
Questions about Bates’ training may come up if the case goes to trial. A 2009 internal affairs report found he received favorable treatment despite lacking required training to serve as an advanced reserve deputy.
Questions also surround Caputo’s reserve training file. The 2009 investigation contained handwritten notes listing Caputo’s file among those that were missing records including a written test, full background check and mental health evaluation.
On Thursday, The Frontier reported that before he became a district judge in 2010, Caputo was an attorney who was involved in two divorce cases of Tulsa County Sheriff’s Deputy Lance Ramsey.
Caputo appeared at multiple hearings in Tulsa District Court with Ramsey between 2000 and 2004.
Prosecutors have listed Ramsey as a witness in Bates’ manslaughter case. He was the undercover officer who sold a 9 mm handgun to Harris during the April 2 operation by the sheriff’s drug task force.
In addition to selling Harris the gun, Ramsey played a central role in events leading up to the shooting.
Bates’ statement, taken four days after the shooting, states: “Deputy Lance Ramsey gave an operational briefing for the three tasks we had that day. The first one he discussed was regarding the suspect named Eric Harris. Deputy Ramsey had a picture of Harris, which was passed around the room for all of us to look at.
“l remember Ramsey advising Harris was a convicted felon and described him as a ‘bad son of a bitch.’ ”
Harris, who had a prior felony conviction, fled as deputies moved in to arrest him.
After Harris was tackled and pinned on the ground by two deputies, Bates stood over him and shot him. He has said he intended to use his Taser instead, though Harris had already been subdued.
The shooting drew national attention after a videotape showed Harris still on the ground, pleading that he could not breathe and a deputy stating: “f–k your breath.” The video cuts off soon after, which the sheriff’s office said was because the camera’s battery died.
Bates has pled not guilty to the manslaughter charge and faces up to four years in prison in the case.
Attorney Dan Smolen sent Kunzweiler a letter Thursday stating he planned to file a motion on behalf of Harris’ family asking Caputo to step down from the case if the DA did not request recusal.
“It … appears that Judge Caputo failed to disclose some of his connections with TCSO at the time he refused to recuse from the Bates criminal case. It is my opinion that the circumstances surrounding the Bates criminal case require Judge Caputo’s disqualification,” the letter states.
Smolen’s letter cites a 2007 state Supreme Court ruling that states: “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.
“When such circumstances exist, the error, if any, should be made in favor of the disqualification rather than against it. Justice must satisfy the appearance of justice.”
Kunzweiler said earlier this week he had not filed a motion asking Caputo to recuse from the case because the judge had said he could 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 on Thursday of other potential conflicts including 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.
Caputo filed a judicial disclosure on April 22 stating that he worked as a sworn Tulsa County Sheriff’s deputy from 1993 through 1999, except for nearly a year’s break during 1995. He also stated that his daughter is a civilian employee with the sheriff’s office and that he has known Glanz for 23 years but only socialized with him once.
Back in April, Caputo said that he would not recuse because prosecutors and defense attorneys had not asked him to. The state’s judicial code of conduct does not require such a request for a recusal to occur.
“My integrity is my most important asset both on and off the bench,” he said in a written statement in April. “Also I made a pledge that I would never shy away from any case assigned to me.”
Caputo’s judicial disclosure of other possible conflicts did not mention his later service as a reserve deputy while Bates was a reserve or his legal work for Ramsey.
Caputo’s April disclosure stated: “I have no relationship with Robert Charles Bates, personally, professionally or otherwise.”
The state code of judicial conduct says: “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.”
In addition to Caputo’s ties to the sheriff’s office and to Ramsey, his campaign fund has received multiple contributions from attorneys with Brewster & De Angelis, 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.
Such contributions are not unusual. Many district judges receive campaign contributions from attorneys who have appeared or will 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 attorneys’ contributions fell outside of the time window specified 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.”
A 2009 internal affairs report found that Bates was given favorable treatment by the sheriff’s office. Though multiple supervisors expressed concerns about Bates’ lack of training, former Undersheriff Tim Albin ordered them to allow him to serve as an advanced reserve deputy.
As an advanced reserve, Bates operated independently with a patrol vehicle, making arrests and traffic stops.
Bates, 74, is a wealthy insurance executive who bought cars and expensive equipment for the drug task force. He was also a longtime friend and campaign manager for Glanz, whose last day in office is Sunday.
Though attorneys in Bates’ case were informed about the latest hearing Thursday afternoon, it was not listed on the court docket as of Friday morning. The hearing marks the second time the public has had little or no notice of a scheduled proceeding in Bates’ case.
Bates’ preliminary hearing had been scheduled for July 2. During a conference call two weeks before then, prosecutors did not object to a request by defense attorneys to move the hearing to two hours later that day and waive it.
Bates’ decision to waive his preliminary hearing has led to speculation by some that a plea bargain may be in the works.
The former reserve deputy also breezed through the county’s jail booking process in less than 30 minutes, a far shorter time than most Tulsa County criminal defendants.
The fallout over the case and revelations about Glanz’s reserve program sparked a grand jury petition drive by a group called We The People Oklahoma. On Tuesday, the group issued a statement calling on Caputo to recuse from Bates’ case.
The grand jury investigation ended in Glanz’s indictment on two misdemeanors alleging he failed to abide by the state Open Records Act and collected a car allowance while driving a county vehicle.
An investigation by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation remains ongoing and sources have told The Frontier a federal grand jury has also been convened to investigate related issues.