Betty Shelby and Simple Justice

My former mean-ass editor* also wrote about Betty Shelby and the trial, from a different perspective than mine.

Scott, perhaps I should clarify. Police are taught to fear, and are taught that their safety trumps everyone else’s safety. As Lou Hayes, Jr. ** points out, police expect compliance and if they don’t get it, they force compliance. In the officer’s mind, non-compliance rises to the level of a threat, sometimes to a threat of deadly force.

It doesn’t, and it doesn’t justify shooting an unarmed man for non-compliance. Neither does DRE, EMT, diver, or trainer give Shelby greater ability to determine what was going on with Crutcher since she did not examine him, etc. I don’t doubt that she thought he was high on PCP or the like–I’m not a DRE but have formed that opinion when a guy stopped his car in a six-lane road, got out, stripped naked, and started to put on other clothes. Experience will oft-times give you a clue as to the person and their condition.

But I live in the real world, and if I’m defending a cop, then I’m going to bring all of those qualifications up, and if relevant to the suspect’s character, the fact that he has warrants, prior history of crime and drugs, etc. You would too, as would any competent defense attorney.

Here, the reason that the case was crap is simple. When your own police witnesses are hostile to you as the prosecutor, you’ve got problems. The prosecution’s witnesses helped Shelby’s case way more than they did the State. The public is still inclined to support the police, especially in a conservative state like Oklahoma, and the jury will have that bias. So they are likely to jump on any reason to acquit, and as a prosecutor, you have a responsibility not to prosecute a crap case.

When you have a case like this, you have to go outside of the local law enforcement agency, you absolutely have to have an outside agency conduct the criminal investigation. When the homicide detective points out that no Tulsa police officer has ever been charged with a homicide before, that’s a bias that should have been exposed well prior to the trial. That’s why the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation should have been brought in to conduct the investigation.

In the meantime, the defense focuses on the fear that Shelby felt. She thought that fear was justifiable because that is what we taught her. It’s not, in my opinion, but that’s not relevant here. Shelby is going to be acquitted, and that is not from a cop’s perspective on the shooting, it’s from a lawyer’s perspective on the case presented by both the State and the defense.

It boils down to fear. The fact that police deadly-force training is based on a culture of fear is something that we need to change. Until we do, we’re going to continue to have officers kill unarmed Americans, and that’s a price we shouldn’t have to pay.


*Scott Greenfield, NY criminal defense lawyer and author of Simple Justice, an ABA hall of fame blawg. He also was the managing editor at Fault Lines.

**Lou Hayes, Jr., is a police supervisor and trainer, and was one of our writers at Fault Lines.