An Oklahoma judge is considering whether to recuse himself from the manslaughter case against a reserve sheriff's deputy who says he mistook his personal handgun for a Taser when he fatally shot a suspect during an arrest.
Tulsa County District Judge James Caputo was assigned to Robert Bates’ case after the deputy, 73, was charged with second-degree manslaughter in the death of Eric Harris.
The sheriff's office had investigated the incident and declared Bates blameless. Prosecutors disagreed, saying he was negligent.
After Bates pleaded not guilty Tuesday, Caputo gave him permission to vacation in the Bahamas. The judge ordered Bates to be back in court on July 2.
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor, said the vacation approval was “slightly unusual, but not unheard of.”
The judge's decision drew strong criticism from Harris’ family, however.
"Whether intended or not, Mr. Bates' vacationing in the Bahamas at this time sends a message of apathy with respect to the shooting and Eric's life," the Harris family said in a statement released this week by their attorney, Dan Smolen. "At a time when we are still mourning the death of a loved one that he shot down in the street, Mr. Bates will be relaxing and enjoying his wealth and privilege.”
In a court document filed Wednesday, Caputo said he has known Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz for more than 23 years. He also worked for the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office for nearly seven years, according to the filing, a Tulsa World report said.
The judge told the newspaper that no one has asked him to recuse himself from the case, but he is considering doing so voluntarily. He said he hoped to decide by Friday.
“There’s a lot of perceptions out there, and I don't want to be one of them,” he told the Tulsa World.
Caputo's ties to the sheriff's office fall into a gray area, Levenson told the Los Angeles Times. Although the judge admits having a lengthy relationship with the sheriff, Caputo said he had never gone on vacation with Glanz or received gifts from him. Caputo also said he didn't have any relationship with Bates.
But this is not just about Caputo's relationship with Bates or Glanz individually, Levenson said. Caputo has to step back and ask himself not only about personal bias, but whether "it can it be reasonably questioned whether he is impartial."
"I have to say, I am concerned that this judge may have conflict," Levenson said, "mainly because of his close relationship with the sheriff's office."
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