Policing

Jury: Shooting of unarmed black man justified because cop “feared for her life”

A jury in Oklahoma concluded that a white female police officer justifiably feared for her life when she fatally shot a black man who was walking away from her with his hands up.

After nine hours of deliberation on Wednesday, jurors found Officer Betty Jo Shelby not guilty of first-degree manslaughter in the fatal shooting of 40-year-old Terrence Crutcher in Tulsa last September.

The shooting was captured in aerial footage by helicopter and by dashboard camera, and showed Crutcher walking away from Shelby toward his SUV with his hands raised above his head. The Sept. 16 encounter began when Shelby, a five-year veteran of the force, and other officers responded to reports of a stalled vehicle.

Lawyers defending Shelby contended that the video offered an abridged version of what happened. They argued that shortly before the cameras captured the encounter, Shelby had ordered Crutcher to stop walking away and get on the ground. Prosecutors asserted that Crutcher posed no threat to Shelby, nor was he behaving in an aggressive or unhinged manner.

“Officer Shelby acted unreasonably by escalating the situation from a confrontation with Mr. Crutcher, who was not responding to verbal commands and was walking away from her with his hands held up, becoming emotionally involved to the point that she overreacted,” according to the affidavit containing the charges against Shelby, filed on September 22. ‘Although Mr. Crutcher was wearing baggy clothes, Officer Shelby was not able to see any weapons or bulges indicating and (sic) weapon was present.”

Phil Stinson, a associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University said that was not surprised by Shelby’s acquittal.

“It seems that whenever an officer takes the witness stand at a jury trial and testifies that they feared for their life, and that is the reason that they shot someone, there are some jurors who will simply not convict the officer of a crime,” said Stinson.

Stinson pointed out that the legal standard does not depend on the subjective threat perceived by an individual officer — the legal standard is “that of a reasonable police officer in that situation.”

“If a reasonable police officer in that situation would not have perceived such a threat, then the shooting was not legally justified,” explained Stinson. “But I can tell you that jurors seem very reluctant to second-guess the split-second life-or-death decisions of an on-duty police officer who shot and killed someone.”

Shelby testified that she believed Crutcher was reaching into his car to retrieve something – possibly a weapon.”We’re not trained to see what comes out of a car,” Shelby said. “We’re trained to stop a threat, and by all indications, he was a threat.”

Assistant District Attorney Kevin Gray challenged Shelby’s account, and argued that “enhanced” video footage suggests that Shelby shot Crutcher five seconds before he reached into the SUV.

In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” last month, Shelby said she thought Crutcher was ultimately responsible for his own death. ‘I have sorrow that this happened, that this man lost his life, but he caused the situation to occur,” Shelby said. “So in the end, he caused his own.”

“Let it be known that I believe in my heart that Betty Shelby got away with murder,” Crutcher’s father, Rev. Joseph Crutcher, told reporters after the verdict came down.

A separate investigation by the Justice Department is ongoing, and Crutcher’s family is hopeful that it will culminate in civil rights charges against Crutcher. However, U.S. Attorney Danny Williams Sr., who was leading the investigation and vowed to “seek justice on behalf of this family, and for the public” was among the dozens of U.S. Attorneys whom the Trump administration asked to resign in March.

 

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