A jury on Wednesday acquitted a white Oklahoma police officer who said 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 expressed outrage after jurors found Tulsa officer Betty Jo Shelby not guilty of first-degree manslaughter in the shooting on Sept. 16 last year.
About 100 demonstrators later gathered outside the courthouse and some briefly blocked a main street.
“Let it be known that I believe in my heart that Betty Shelby got away with murder,” Crutcher’s father, Reverend 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 the Crutcher 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 they did not look at either the Crutcher family or Shelby.
The jury was comprised of eight women and four men and included three African-Americans.
Shelby testified that she fired her weapon out of fear, because she said Terence Crutcher did not obey her commands to lie on the ground and appeared to reach inside his vehicle for what she thought was a gun.
Terence Crutcher was unarmed.
Prosecutors told jurors that Shelby overreacted, saying Terence Crutcher had his hands in the air and was not combative — part of which was confirmed by police video taken from a dashboard camera and helicopter that showed him 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 Terence Crutcher to stop walking away from her and get on the ground.
Shelby also said she feared Terence Crutcher was under the influence of phencyclidine, a powerful hallucinogenic commonly known as Angel Dust that makes users erratic, unpredictable and combative.
An autopsy showed the drug was in Terence Crutcher’s system, and police said they found a vial of it in his sport utility vehicle.
Terence Crutcher’s family said police attempted to “demonize” him over the drug possession to deflect attention from the fact officers did not find a gun inside his vehicle.
The killing of 40-year-old Terence 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.
About 100 demonstrators on Wednesday evening gathered in a plaza outside the courthouse to protest the verdict, chanting: “No justice, no peace. No racist police.”
A smaller group later briefly blocked a major downtown road, but dispersed peacefully. Police kept a relatively low profile, standing about a block away.
Marq Lewis, organizer of 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 asked.
Tulsa has a long history of troubled race relations dating back to a 1921 race riot that left about 300 black residents dead.
In 2015, a poorly trained white voluntary deputy, Robert Bates, shot and killed a black man after Bates said he mistakenly reached for his gun rather than a stun gun. The shooting led to the departure of the sheriff.
Six days after the Terence Crutcher shooting, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler charged Shelby. An affidavit accused her of “becoming emotionally involved to the point that she overreacted.”
McMurray argued that prosecutors rushed to charge Shelby for political reasons, fearing civil unrest such as the angry street protests that erupted in Charlotte, North Carolina, after the fatal shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott four days after Terence Crutcher was killed.
However, the reaction in Tulsa was more muted, with protests, but no violence.
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