A volunteer Oklahoma sheriff’s deputy was charged with manslaughter Monday after prosecutors said he was negligent for shooting an unarmed suspect with a gun instead of a Taser during an arrest.
The charges were a resounding rejection of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office’s evaluation of the case: that its reserve deputy, Robert Charles Bates, made an excusable error when he fatally shot Eric Courtney Harris, 44, on April 2.
Bates, 73, is a wealthy insurance executive with close personal and political ties to the sheriff. The second-degree manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison.
The incident began as a sting, with officers trying to arrest Harris on suspicion of selling a gun to an undercover officer. Harris fled. Body camera video showed a foot chase and a different deputy tackling Harris.
Bates had not been expected to participate in the arrest, but the arrest essentially came to him because of the chase.
As another officer tries to handcuff Harris, Bates, standing off-screen, shouts “Taser!” but fires a single gunshot instead, the video shows.
“I shot him; I’m sorry,” says Bates, whose gun falls to the ground.
“He shot me!” Harris can be heard saying, and then moaning as law enforcement officers wrestle with the fatally wounded man and curse him. Harris died an hour later.
Bates did not respond to a message left at his insurance company Monday. His attorney, Scott Wood, could not be reached for comment.
The shooting has drawn attention to Tulsa County’s use of reserve deputies, whose ranks include the wealthy and political backers of longtime Sheriff Stanley Glanz.
Harris’ family criticized the department as biased in deciding to conduct its own investigation into one of Glanz’s friends.
Glanz called the shooting an “error.”
“Bob and I both love to fish,” the sheriff told the Tulsa World on Monday as he held up a photo of the two of them fishing together. Bates was also his insurance agent, he said. “Is it wrong to have a friend?”
The Sheriff’s Office had defended Bates, who donated cars and other equipment to the department, as a squall of criticism gathered. On Friday, the department brought in an outside consultant to announce the results of the sheriff’s investigation.
The consultant, Jim Clark, said the shooting was excusable homicide. For more than 20 minutes, Clark gave a step-by-step argument to reporters that the incident was explainable by brain science. He cited a theory called “slips and capture,” which postulates that the brain automatically reverts to ingrained behaviors during stressful and chaotic moments, somewhat similar to when drivers reach for nonexistent knobs when behind the wheel of new cars.
“It is my opinion, after reviewing all the facts and circumstances of this case, [the state’s excusable homicide statute] was applicable in this incident,” said Clark, a Tulsa city police sergeant acting in a private capacity. “Reserve Deputy Bates did not commit a crime. Reserve Deputy Bates was a victim, a true victim, of ‘slips and capture.’ There’s no other determination I could come to.”
The Tulsa County district attorney’s office came to the opposite conclusion Monday. In a news release, Dist. Atty. Stephen A. Kunzweiler commented on the unusual circumstances of the case:
“Mr. Bates is charged with second-degree manslaughter involving culpable negligence. Oklahoma law defines culpable negligence as ‘the omission to do something which a reasonably careful person would do, or the lack of the usual ordinary care and caution in the performance of an act usually and ordinarily exercised by a person under similar circumstances and conditions.’”
Harris’ killing appeared reminiscent of a racially charged California case featured in the movie “Fruitvale Station.”
A white Bay Area transit officer, Johannes Mehserle, fatally shot unarmed black 22-year-old Oscar Grant III with his gun instead of his Taser while trying to arrest him. The 2009 incident in Oakland was filmed by bystanders.
Mehserle was charged with second-degree murder. A jury convicted him of involuntary manslaughter — a crime of negligence — and he was sentenced to two years in prison.
At least one of the defense experts who testified in that case, Bill Lewinski — director of the Force Science Institute, which studies police use of force — confirmed to The Times on Monday that he had been consulted by Bates’ attorney as a similar case looms in Oklahoma.
“I know why this occurred, but is it a chargeable offense?” Lewinski asked, citing similar cases in medicine and air travel in which doctors or pilots make similarly confused split-second decisions. That’s “not for me to decide.”