Case in Point: Four Holes in Officer Betty Shelby’s Defense

By David Jacobs, Senior Communications Associate at LDF

Two nights ago, a jury in Tulsa, Oklahoma, found Police Officer Betty Jo Shelby not guilty of first-degree manslaughter for the September 2016 roadside killing of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black man. The verdict reinforced, once again, that police officers are almost never convicted for killing unarmed African Americans. While every one of these cases is unique, they are all characterized by common features that prevent jurors from reaching an unanimous verdict of guilt.

Frequently, an acquittal comes at the hands of an all-white jury. In most cases, there is no video evidence to challenge an officers’ account. However, in the trial of Officer Shelby, there were three African-American jurors, and there was footage of the shooting that showed Mr. Crutcher with his hands up. Instead, her trial is a textbook example of how jurors almost always accept law enforcement’s account, even when videos and other objective evidence cast doubt on the officer’s credibility. Indeed, jurors will often go out of their way to resolve conflicts in the officers’ narrative while ignoring or minimizing discrepancies.

Below are just a handful of the issues and inconsistencies we saw in Officer Shelby’s defense.

1. A deadly guess

On day six of the proceedings in Tulsa, Officer Shelby testified that in her training she was taught to meet a “gun with a gun,” and since she believed Mr. Crutcher had a firearm, she felt compelled to use hers. However, Mr. Crutcher never pointed a gun in Officer Shelby’s direction, as he did not have a firearm in his possession, so her decision to use such force was based purely on speculation. Assistant District Attorney Kevin Grey rightly challenged her on this point, asking, “You were meeting ‘a guess about a gun’ with your gun?” To which Officer Shelby replied, “Yes.”

Indeed, the only item found in Mr. Crutcher’s car even resembling a weapon was a screwdriver tucked away in the center console.

2. The smell of PCP

In her courtroom testimony, Officer Shelby recounted smelling an odor of PCP on Mr. Crutcher, causing her further alarm about the threat he might pose. But Officer Shelby neglected to mention this detail in her initial interview with Sgt. Dave Walker shortly after the incident. Instead, she suggested to Sgt. Walker that she thought Mr. Crutcher might be experiencing a mental health issue or was high on PCP. It was only later, after the widely-publicized discovery of a vial of PCP in Mr. Crutcher’s vehicle, that she claimed to remember the scent. The timing raises the question of why she would have originally suggested that Mr. Crutcher was mentally ill if she had in fact smelled PCP.

3. The Dashboard camera

Officer Shelby also gave inconsistent explanations of why she failed to turn on her dashboard camera. At one point, she said that there wasn’t an enforcement issue, just an abandoned vehicle to attend to; later she indicated that the scene was far more complicated than simply an abandoned vehicle. In another instance, she suggested that she attempted to turn the camera on but it did not work.

4. A “bad dude”

From hundreds of feet above, a police officer piloting one of the department’s helicopters noted that Mr. Crutcher looked “like a bad dude,” an assessment based solely on what the officer could see: Mr. Crutcher’s race and his raised hands. And in a 60 Minutes interview months later, Officer Shelby characterized Mr. Crutcher as “zombie-like.” These ignorant and vilifying characterizations point to an implicit bias issue within the Tulsa Police Department, whose officers made assumptions about Mr. Crutcher’s criminality due to his race.

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These inconsistencies and underlying issues, in addition to the incriminating helicopter footage and all the work done by Officer Shelby’s colleagues to shield her from prosecution, are deeply problematic.

The jury has spoken, and the process has run its course in the state criminal case, but we urge the Justice Department to complete its criminal investigation into the shooting death of Mr. Crutcher to determine whether Officer Shelby violated his civil rights. While the applicable federal civil rights statute requires proving willfulness, the highest evidentiary burden in law, we remain hopeful that charges will be filed. Additionally, we call on the Tulsa Police Department to complete a thorough and expeditious administrative investigation of Officer Shelby’s conduct and impose appropriate discipline, including her termination.

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