TULSA, Okla. - A jury on Wednesday acquitted of first-degree manslaughter a white Oklahoma police officer who says she fired out of fear last year when she killed an unarmed black man with his hands held above his head.
The family of Terence Crutcher burst into tears and reacted with outrage after jurors found Tulsa officer Betty Jo Shelby not guilty in the Sept. 16 shooting.
“Let it be known that I believe in my heart that Betty Shelby got away with murder,” Crutcher’s father, Rev. Joey Crutcher said after the verdict was announced.
A lawyer for Shelby said the officer was “elated” that the jury found her not guilty.
“She’s ready to get back to her life,” Defense Attorney Shannon McMurray said.
Shelby looked stone-faced when the verdict was read, but Crutcher’s family was quickly ushered out of the courtroom sobbing and wailing.
At least four of the 12 jurors were crying as they left the courtroom and did not look at either the family of Crutcher or Shelby. The juror comprised eight women and four men and included three African-Americans.
Demonstrators gathered outside the courtroom Wednesday evening in peaceful protest at the verdict. Marq Lewis, organizer of the local civil rights group, We The People Oklahoma, said the verdict was a blow to Tulsa’s black community.
“When is it going to stop — just officer-related shootings? When will the police change policy,” he said.
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin released a statement after the verdict and pleaded for Tulsans to remain calm.
“I ask Oklahomans to respect our criminal justice system and especially the jurors, who heard the evidence from both sides in this case," said Fallin in a statement. "Those who disagree with the verdict have the right to express their opinions; I just ask that they do so in a peaceful manner. Our thoughts and prayers should be with the Terence Crutcher and Betty Shelby families during this difficult time.”
Shelby said she fired her weapon out of fear because she said Crutcher didn’t obey her commands to lie on the ground and appeared to reach inside his SUV for what she thought was a gun. Crutcher was unarmed.
Prosecutors told jurors that Shelby overreacted. They noted Crutcher had his hands in their air and wasn’t combative — part of which was confirmed by police video taken from a dashboard camera and helicopter that showed Crutcher walking away from Shelby, hands held above his head.
Shelby’s attorneys argued that in the two minutes before cameras began recording the encounter, Shelby repeatedly ordered Crutcher to stop walking away from her and get on the ground.
Shelby also said she feared Crutcher was under the influence of PCP, a powerful hallucinogenic known as Angel Dust that makes users erratic, unpredictable and combative.
An autopsy showed PCP was in Crutcher’s system, and police said they found a vial of it in his SUV.
Crutcher’s family said police attempted to “demonize” Crutcher over the drug possession to deflect attention from the fact officers didn’t find a gun inside his SUV.
The killing of 40-year-old Crutcher was among a spate of officer-involved shootings in recent years that helped galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement and prompted calls for more police accountability.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler charged Shelby six days after the shooting. An affidavit accused her of “becoming emotionally involved to the point that she overreacted.”
Defense attorney McMurray argued that prosecutors rushed to charge Shelby for political reasons, fearing civil unrest like the angry street protests that erupted in Charlotte, North Carolina, after the fatal shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott four days after Crutcher was killed.