Tulsa County DA debate turns to questions over last summer’s Betty Shelby trial

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Tulsa County incumbent District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler listens during a debate on Wednesday, May 2, 2018, at the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police lodge. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
The Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police will, in all likelihood, give its endorsement to Republican Ben Fu to become Tulsa County’s next district attorney.

In some ways that fact made Wednesday night’s debate, held at the FOP’s lodge in east Tulsa, more interesting rather than less.

Jerad Lindsey, the FOP chairman, has previously criticized incumbent Steve Kunzweiler over the handling of the Betty Shelby case, going so far as to file a bar complaint against Kunzweiler in the days leading up to Shelby’s trial.

(Shelby was charged in September 2016 with first-degree manslaughter for killing Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, during a traffic stop. Shelby was eventually acquitted.)

And it would seem unlikely the FOP would endorse Jenny Proehl-Day, a Democrat, or Tammy Westcott, a Republican who is apparently closely allied with Day. Day previously told The Frontier she would name Westcott as her First Assistant DA should she be elected, and both candidates were grilled during Wednesday’s debate about their apparent allegiance.

Tulsa County District Attorney candidate Jenny Day speaks during a debate on Wednesday, May 2, 2018, at the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police lodge. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Lindsey said after the debate an official endorsement from the FOP would come soon and it would appear based on Wednesday that Fu has the inside track. Fu, like Westcott and Day, was an assistant district attorney under Kunzweiler and preaches a doctrine of criminal justice reforms.

That left the early part of the debate without many fireworks. The debate, which was originally scheduled for Tuesday, then shifted to Wednesday, began at 4:30 p.m. while Kunzweiler was still downtown prosecuting the Michael Bever trial.

His early absence let the other candidates carefully explain their positions on things like “the role of a district attorney,” or “what kind of jury trial experience do you have,” or “what does smart on crime mean?”

Tulsa County District Attorney candidate Tammy Westcott speaks during a debate on Wednesday, May 2, 2018, at the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police lodge. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

But once Kunzweiler arrived the debate picked up steam, primarily because almost the entire focus turned to him and his experience handling the Shelby case.

Even the other candidates were forced for a good portion of the debate’s final hour to watch as Kunzweiler fielded question after question concerning the charging of Shelby in 2016 and the way her trial was handled last summer.

The debate was moderated by Mark Nelson, the Oklahoma City Police Department’s FOP vice president, but the final questions were posed by: Dave Walker, the Tulsa Police Department’s Homicide Unit Sergeant; Scott Wood, one of Shelby’s trial attorneys, and Pat Campbell, a local radio host on KFAQ.

All three asked Kunzweiler about the Shelby case.

Campbell told Kunzweiler that while he didn’t have access to the material Kunzweiler did when the charge against Shelby was filed, he “had the next best thing,” former TPD detective Mike Huff.

WATCH: We’re live at the Tulsa FOP District Attorney debate.

Posted by The Frontier on Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Huff, Campbell said, had told him that Kunzweiler “overcharged” Shelby, and “over-promised and under-delivered” to Crutcher’s family.

Huff, Kunzweiler pointed out, had been hired by Shelby as an investigator for her trial defense.

Campbell also asked Kunzweiler if there as a rift between he and TPD officers.

“There’s no doubt about that,” Kunzweiler replied, saying that a rift would likely exist between officers and any DA who charged a police officer for an on-duty shooting. “The best thing I know to do is to focus on the job I’ve done.”

Walker asked if the candidates believed TPD should investigate their own officers following officer-involved shootings. When Kunzweiler charged Shelby in 2016, Walker was one day away from handing the DA a report that suggested charges should not be filed.

Tulsa Police Department Homicide Sergeant Dave Walker talks to District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler during a debate on Wednesday, May 2, 2018, at the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police lodge. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

All the candidates agreed TPD had the capability to investigate themselves. Kunzweiler said that although he disagreed with Walker’s decision that Shelby shouldn’t have been charged, that didn’t mean he thought TPD couldn’t investigate their own officers moving forward.

Day, Fu and Westcott all agreed they would not have charged Shelby without at least waiting on Walker’s report to be turned in, as Kunzweiler did when he charged Shelby using a report filed by District Attorney’s Office investigator Doug Campbell.

The most lengthy series of questions came from Wood, who represented Shelby alongside Shannon McMurray during Shelby’s trial. Wood asked Kunzweiler if he had any “use-of-force” training similar to one officers receive — none of the candidates had received such training, though Fu, Westcott and Day later said they would get such training if elected.

Wood also asked about positions Kunzweiler brought up during Shelby’s trial, such as when Shelby was criticized for taking 72 hours to give a statement to investigators. TPD policy, Wood said, is for officers to receive that 72-hour period to cool off before making a statement, yet during trial Kunzweiler and ADA Kevin Gray told the jury that was improper.

Regular citizens who are involved in a shooting are routinely brought in to speak with detectives “within an hour,” Kunzweiler said.

For closing, Nelson asked the candidates “if the election was tomorrow,” why should they be elected?

Westcott pointed to her experience in the field of criminal justice reforms as leader of Tulsa County’s Drug Court.

“It’s time to elect a leader who can make it happen,” she said, “not just someone who talks about it on the campaign trail.”

Kunzweiler said he had “mentored” all three fellow candidates and likely had as many years of experience on his own as the whole group combined. And he said that while other attorneys may have left the DA’s office to find more lucrative work, “I have always been a prosecutor.”

Tulsa County District Attorney candidate Ben Fu speaks during a debate on Wednesday, May 2, 2018, at the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police lodge. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Fu said he had the right combination of “vision and experience” and said Tulsa County was “at a crossroads.”

“If you’re happy with the way the last four years have gone, by all means, give (Kunzweiler) your vote,” he said.

Day said she would ask the public if they were better off now “than you were four years ago.”

“I believe the answer is no,” she said.

“You need a leader who is not just a further extension of the current district attorney … you need someone with a different vision who has been away from the office.”

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Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan is a news junkie and QuikTrip addict. He spends too much time on Twitter, but has launched what will be a failed attempt to cut back in 2018. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
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