By DYLAN GOFORTH
As District Judge Rebecca Nightingale read her order ruling in favor of the grassroots organization seeking a grand jury investigation of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, the group’s attorney sat nearby with her stomach in knots.
“It kept sounding good, it kept sounding in our favor,” said Laurie Phillips, the attorney for We The People Oklahoma. “But I was waiting for her to say: ‘But…'”
The “but” never came. Nightingale ended the 6-hour hearing on Tuesday by ordering a grand jury to be convened on July 20.
Tuesday’s hearing wrapped up nearly two months of efforts by Marq Lewis, the organizer of We The People Oklahoma, and his volunteers. The group began collecting signatures in May, a little more than a month after reserve Tulsa County deputy Robert Bates shot and killed Eric Harris during a botched undercover sting.
Harris, according to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, had been selling guns and drugs to undercover officers. Bates said he believed he had pulled out his Taser when he shot Harris once under the right arm, killing him.
The fallout from that incident has been severe. Several high-ranking deputies have been forced out or fired by Sheriff Stanley Glanz, who has come under fire himself for alleged mismanagement of TCSO. Bates, Glanz has previously said, is a decades-long friend and vacation and fishing buddy who donated money to the sheriff, ran Glanz’s re-election campaign and donated tens of thousands of dollars of equipment to the Sheriff’s Office.
It’s unclear whether Tuesday’s order to convene a grand jury will end the legal maneuvering surrounding We The People Oklahoma’s petition efforts. Attorneys for the Sheriff’s Office left the courthouse without speaking to the media. Glanz issued a statement via email Tuesday evening, saying his legal team is reviewing the judge’s decision.
“As I have stated previously, I am neither afraid nor hesitant to have the petitioners grievances brought before a legally empaneled grand jury or directly to me,” Glanz said in the email. “I have never denied the petitioners their access to me to listen to their grievances regarding how our office can improve its performance. That door has always remained open and still is. It doesn’t take a grand jury to open it.”
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler has asked the state Attorney General to appoint another prosecutor to coordinate the Grand Jury investigation into the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.
“In keeping with my office’s duty and responsibility to protect the integrity of the investigative process it is incumbent to avoid the appearance of any conflict,” Kunzweiler said.
The Sheriff’s Office has fought back since petition efforts began to impanel a grand jury. In May, it threatened to sue the petitioners if the allegations made in their grand jury petition were false. It later claimed that hot dogs given out at different signature gathering spots were “inducements” that may have invalidated the process.
Following the delivery of more than 6,600 authenticated signatures of registered Tulsa County voters seeking the investigation (the group needed 5,000), the Sheriff’s Office filed a motion claiming those signatures had been collected illegally.
At Tuesday’s hearing, John Carwile, the attorney hired by TCSO to represent Glanz, argued that the signatures should be legally invalidated for two reasons: The first was that the pages that the signatures were collected on were physically disconnected from the 33-page petition judge Nightingale had approved in May.
The second objection was that the signature form itself, which stated “Tulsa County Grand Jury Petition” at the top of the page, was masquerading as the actual petition in which specific allegations against Glanz had been made.
State statutes, Carwile argued, are clear in that while We The People Oklahoma may have made a “good-faith” effort to stick to the rules, that effort, legally speaking, wasn’t enough.
Nightingale ruled against those claims, saying that sticking to a “strict” interpretation of those statutes would be favoring “form over substance.”
“This is a win for the community,” Lewis said after the hearing. “This is a win for the citizens.”
Lewis said that had the ruling gone against his group, he didn’t know if he would have been able to rally enough support to try again.
“It takes a lot to motivate people and to get people encouraged and to believe in the system,” he said. “I’m just glad that it worked for us today and we don’t have to think about that.”
He also said he didn’t know what would be next for his organization.
“We have to breathe first,” he said. “Right now we just want to celebrate.”