Eric Courtney Harris was shot and killed in 2015 by a volunteer deputy sheriff
Jury selection begins in the trial of the deputy, Robert Bates
Bates' defense: He was reaching for Taser, pulled service revolver and fired by mistake
Robert Bates, a former insurance businessman turned volunteer deputy, goes on trial Monday in a fatal shooting involving an officer and an unarmed black man, and Bates doesn’t deny pulling the trigger of his service revolver to put a single deadly shot into Eric Courtney Harris’ back.
But what jurors – who will be selected through proceedings that began Monday in a modest Tulsa, Oklahoma, courtroom – will likely hear is that in a heartbeat, a human mistake became a human tragedy.
Bates fired his weapon as he assisted officers of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office in subduing Harris, the subject of an undercover sting operation who was attempting to flee that dreary Oklahoma Thursday in April last year.
Bates was “attempting to use less lethal force, believing he was utilizing a Taser, when he inadvertently discharged his service weapon, firing one round which struck Harris,” according to statements from the Sheriff’s Office shortly after the shooting.
The death of Harris is one of several nationally known cases in which the killing of an unarmed black man by law enforcement has galvanized people over tactics that police are trained to use.
Bates is facing a second-degree manslaughter charge. Bates has pleaded not guilty, but if convicted, he could be sentenced to up to four years prison.
With opening statements expected Wednesday, prosecutors will have to prove to the jury that Bates’ actions amounted to “culpable negligence,” according to Bates’ defense attorney, Clark Brewster.
After months of pretrial motions and a change of judges, Brewster is confident that the defense will fend off that prosecution attempt.
“I expect an interesting trial, and I am confident in how this case will be tried,” Brewster told CNN in a telephone interview.
Tulsa District Attorney Stephen A. Kunzweiler’s office declined to comment before the trial starts.
In previous interviews with CNN, Brewster contended his client “owned it, stepped up and was totally transparent” about his actions the day he shot Harris, and Brewster maintains that his client shouldn’t go to jail for an accident.
Harris’ family in a statement Monday said that while they continue to grieve for Harris, “at the same time, we pray for justice.”
On April 2, 2015, Bates was parked several blocks away from the site where an undercover deputy was conducting a sting operation that was set up, according to Tulsa authorities, to catch Harris in the act of illegally selling a gun.
Bates said in an interview on NBC’s “Today Show” he had participated in “several hundred” such operations but always in a backup role where he would “clean up” after deputies made an arrest, taking photos and notes.
But, according to official accounts, as deputies rolled up to arrest Harris after the alleged sale, Harris bolted from the vehicle and ran toward Bates’ position where the two – along with other officers – tussled until Bates’ fired his gun.
Brewster said he has a bevy of experts including Yale professor and forensic psychiatrist Charles Morgan who will testify to the effects of the stress Bates’ was under as he made the mistake of drawing his gun and not his Taser that day. The defense also plans to call a cardiologist to the stand to testify about what the defense contends was the poor condition of Harris’ heart at the time he was shot.
But having an expert testify to a purported medical condition “is irrelevant unless one of those experts can say that being shot in the back did not contribute to his death,” said Harris’ family attorney Dan Smolen, who has filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Harris’ estate.
Members of the Harris family plan to be in court for jury selection and for the duration of the trial, said Smolen.
The NAACP and local lawmakers such as state Rep. Mike Shelton of Oklahoma County led the call to put pressure on Oklahoma’s top legal brass to bring charges in the case.
What Bates is accused of is an example of power unchecked, said Shelton. “He [Bates] wanted to play cops and robbers and that’s what he did,” Shelton said.
Shelton is alluding to the fact that Bates, a volunteer reserve deputy, is a close friend to former Sheriff Stanley Glanz. After serving for almost 30 years as Tusa’s sheriff, Glanz resigned in September when a grand jury indicted him on a pair of misdemeanor charges, one of them accusing him of withholding details related to Bates who fatally shot Harris.
Bates apologized to Harris’ family, whose members have rejected allegations he was violent and on drugs despite a postmortem toxicology screen that showed Harris had methamphetamine, cocaine, opiates and other drugs in his system.
“I think the community pressure worked … Before that pressure they had no plans to indict [Bates],” said Shelton, who has been in the Oklahoma legislature for 12 years.
“In this situation, the people are satisfied that the process is working, but there is still a concern with the justice system and the disturbing pattern of how Stanley Glanz ran his department.”