A Tulsa volunteer deputy will fight a manslaughter charge by arguing that a frantic arrest scene with a potentially dangerous suspect led him to accidentally use his a gun instead of a Taser, one of his attorneys told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday.
The volunteer deputy, 73-year-old Robert Charles Bates -- a wealthy insurance executive with close personal and political ties to the Tulsa County sheriff -- turned himself in to authorities Tuesday.
FOR THE RECORD:
Oklahoma police shooting: In the April 13 Section A, an article about a Tulsa County reserve deputy who grabbed his gun instead of his Taser and fatally shot a suspect said that the sheriff’s office had held a news conference Saturday, when it also released a video of the shooting. The news conference was Friday, as was the video’s release. —
He posted a $25,000 bond after he was booked at the Tulsa County Jail for second-degree manslaughter. His next court appearance is scheduled for April 21.
Bates fatally shot Eric Courtney Harris, 44, during an April 2 arrest in which Harris had sprinted away from deputies trying to arrest him on suspicion of a gun charge.
The charge, filed Monday by the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office, carries up to four years in prison.
Prosecutors accuse Bates of being negligent in unintentionally using his gun instead of his Taser.
Bates’ attorney argued that it was a split-second mistake and that doctors who kill patients by making similar errors do not face similar charges.
“We [Bates’ attorneys] met with the D.A. before he filed charges; we tried to persuade him not to,” one of Bates’ attorneys, Corbin Brewster, told The Times in a phone interview, adding that that he disagreed with district attorney Steve Kunzweiler’s interpretation of the state’s second-degree manslaughter law.
“Almost no doctors are charged” for similar allegations of negligence in patients’ deaths, Brewster said. “I can’t think of a single case in Tulsa County ever where a doctor was charged with a patient’s death.”
In a statement Monday, Kunzweiler said that Bates’ shooting was not excusable, but was “culpable negligence.”
The case is similar to a high-profile 2009 case in Oakland in which unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by a BART officer who said he accidentally grabbed his gun instead of his Taser.
The officer in that case, Johannes Mehserle, faced a second-degree murder charge but was ultimately convicted of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter after a jury found the shooting had been unintentional. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
One of the defense experts in that case, Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Institute, which studies officer use of force, confirmed to The Times that he’d already been contacted by Bates’ legal team about the case in Oklahoma.
Lewinski argues that high-pressure situations can cause officers to make mental slips in which they revert to familiar behaviors, such as reaching for a gun when they intend to reach for a Taser.
That theory – called “slips and capture” – is an argument for how such a shooting can be unintentional. But in a Monday interview with The Times, Lewinski said he didn’t know if it is a defense against a charge of negligence.
“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 confused split-second decisions. That’s “not for me to decide.”
Bates was working as part of a sting, officials said, with officers trying to arrest Harris, who authorities said tried to sell an illegal gun to an undercover officer. Harris had multiple felony convictions from the 1980s and ‘90s as well as a 2013 conviction for assault on a law enforcement officer, according to prison records.
Body camera video from the incident shows Harris fleeing during the arrest and a different deputy chasing and tackling him. Then, as another officer tries to handcuff the suspect, Bates, standing off-screen, shouts “Taser!” but fires a single gunshot instead.
“I shot him; I’m sorry,” Bates can be heard saying on the video, which showed that he dropped his gun on the ground.
“He shot me!” Harris says, moaning as deputies wrestle with him and shout expletives at him. He died an hour later.
In its own investigation, the sheriff’s office concluded that the volunteer deputy’s accidental use of the gun was not a crime. The agency brought in a Tulsa police sergeant as a consultant to evaluate the findings and make a public statement.