About 24 hours after Robert Bates was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Eric Harris, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement referencing the conviction, the two families in the middle of the case, and a hope to move forward beyond the controversy.
“Now that a verdict has been decided, we hope the healing can begin for the families of Eric Harris and Robert Bates, as well as Tulsa County,” it stated.
The reality is that the Bates criminal case (he was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and the jury recommended the maximum four-year sentence) was merely a part of a larger puzzle the county must piece together. Like the civil case filed on behalf of Ladona Poore, a female inmate at the Tulsa Jail who testified that she had been sexually assaulted there by a detention office, the Bates criminal case was merely the tip of the iceberg.
A handful of other civil lawsuits related to the jail and sheriff’s office linger in the court system — the Poore case (where jurors found former sheriff Stanley Glanz and the sheriff’s office were “deliberately indifferent” to the risk of serious harm to Poore, awarding her $25,000) was merely the first to reach its conclusion. Likewise, the outcome of Bates’ criminal case could be the sign of an ominous outcome the county, considering the pending civil rights case related to Harris’ death last year.
“What you’re going to see is a stream of these cases that have been litigated for years now finally coming due,” attorney Dan Smolen said. Smolen represents the Harris family and has filed a number of other cases against the county and the sheriff’s office. “It’s not going to end well for the county.”
During the eight-day Bates trial, jurors heard from deputies testifying for the state that the 74-year-old former reserve deputy called a member of TCSO’s violent crimes task force the night before the raid to ask if he could help. They heard that just minutes before the Harris shooting, Bates was “dozing off” in his Chevrolet Tahoe while other deputies prepared for the raid. They heard that Bates was usually ordered to stay in the background on task force raids, and only to work as “containment,” in case a suspect fled. They heard that in more than a decade of undercover gun buys, no suspect prior to Harris had ever run from an arrest.
But what the jurors didn’t hear will be crucial going forward. Due to a pretrial ruling from Tulsa County District Judge William Musseman, jurors didn’t hear that numerous TCSO supervisors had said throughout the years that Bates’ training documents were forged, and that the reserve deputy who claimed to have thousands of hours of training actually had far fewer.
Jurors didn’t hear that Bates wasn’t qualified on the .357 snubnose revolver he used to kill Harris, and they didn’t hear that even if he was qualified on that gun, TCSO policy forbade him from carrying it on duty. The jury didn’t hear that, according to 2015 grand jury testimony, he once was reprimanded while on the gun range for accidentally pointing his loaded handgun at other deputies. He was apparently so outraged at that reprimand, that he refused to participate in the rest of the qualification.
And jurors didn’t hear that Glanz’s response to that incident was “just pass him.”
“The jury (in the criminal case) gave him the maximum sentence and they didn’t hear any of that,” Dan Smolen said on Thursday. “What do you think a civil jury will do when they hear the evidence about how (Bates) got on that raid?”
Following the Harris shooting, Glanz told reporters that Bates was a good friend of his, and that the two had gone on several fishing trips and vacations together. Bates donated money to Glanz’s re-election campaigns and served as his campaign chairman. He also donated tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment to the sheriff’s office, and critics have said that in repayment, Glanz allowed Bates essentially free reign within TCSO.
Smolen has filed several of the lawsuits against the county, ranging from deaths in the jail, to sexual assaults in the jail, to allegations of wrongful termination, to Harris’ death at the hands of Bates.
By Smolen’s estimation, at least six federal court cases are near a trial date, including two jail sexual assault cases and three jail death cases.
One of those lawsuits, filed on behalf of the estate of Elliott Williams, is nearing a critical point. Smolen called Williams’ death — the army veteran suffered a mental breakdown, was arrested and allowed to starve as he laid on the Tulsa Jail floor with a broken neck — “possibly the worst ever in the country.
“We believe soon the court will be issuing an order … that will say either ‘these claims can proceed or they are not worthy of proceeding based on their merits,” Smolen said. “I really believe that based on the egregious facts of the Williams case that it’s highly unlikely the court will throw it out.”
The day after
Following the verdict, Andre Harris spent the night celebrating with his wife and friends. Andre, Eric Harris’ older brother, had spent the past year rallying against the sheriff’s office, be it the grand jury indictment against Glanz, or the criminal case against Bates.
But after leaving the courtroom Wednesday night, Harris said he felt “10 pounds lighter.”
“There’s really nothing like it, no way to explain it, I just feel free,” he said Thursday. “I feel like my old self again. I’ve said the whole time that I’ve been relaxed, but now I actually feel relaxed.
“It was such a heavy weight. I don’t think I realized how heavy until it was gone.”
Harris said his plans Thursday were to get in touch with his brother’s son, Aidan Fraley. Fraley attends high school in Tennessee and is set to graduate this year.
“I know the whole situation was tough for him, because he was kind of thrust into it a little bit,” Harris said. Fraley attended some of the early press conferences as the story unfolded. “It was hard for him, I think, to be here for some of it and then to be removed from, you know. But he’s handled it well.”
Marq Lewis, the organizer of We The People Oklahoma, a grassroots group that rose to local prominence following Harris’ death, said he believed the Bates verdict was a victory that needed to happen to keep positive momentum going.
“It reminded me of the grand jury a little, because my fear then was that if we lost, or if Glanz wasn’t indicted, that the whole thing would have stopped,” he said. “I was always afraid that people would stop caring. So I really thought Bates was going to be found not guilty, and my thoughts were, ‘Oh my God, what if this stops the whole thing?’”
“You have to keep the pressure (on the sheriff’s office and the county government,) because if you don’t, nothing changes,” he said. “And if nothing changes, we just wasted our time.”
What’s next for Bates?
After being led out of Musseman’s courtroom in handcuffs Wednesday night, Bates was placed in a cell in the Tulsa Jail’s medical unit. Casey Roebuck, public information officer for TCSO, said Bates was placed there (cells in the medical unit are segregated from other inmates) for his own protection.
Coincidentally, juvenile females (like Poore) have in the past been held in the medical cells, due to the jail having too few juvenile female inmates at a time to justify the use of a full pod. Inmates in those cells typically remain in their cell for 23 hours a day.
Bates’ attorney Clark Brewster did not respond to requests for comment by The Frontier on Thursday. Following Wednesday’s verdict, he indicated he intended to appeal Bates’ conviction.
Bates is set to be sentenced on May 31. After that happens, his next stop will be the Oklahoma Department of Corrections Assessment and Reception Center in Lexington, DOC spokesman Alex Gerszewski said.
While there, Bates will receive medical, mental, and physical tests in order to help DOC staff determine what prison to place him.
“It’s tough to say where exactly he might end up,” Gerzshewski said. “It’s really going to depend on a number of factors. For instance, if we determine he has medical needs, it will depend on what facilities we have that can meet those needs. And then it comes down to where we have a bed available for him. His age will play a factor, too.