The U.S. Department of Justice did not find sufficient evidence to prosecute former Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby for civil rights violations over the 2016 shooting death of Terence Crutcher, it announced Friday.
Shelby, 45, faced a first-degree manslaughter count in Tulsa County District Court over her on-duty shooting of Crutcher, 40, in north Tulsa on Sept. 16, 2016. A jury acquitted her of the charge in May 2017 but released a letter expressing concerns about whether Shelby should continue a career in law enforcement.
A judge granted Shelby’s request later in 2017 to seal the case record from public view.
In a press conference late Friday afternoon, Crutcher’s twin sister, Tiffany Crutcher, called the DOJ’s decision “very disappointing” but said the family is still “not defeated.”
“I made a vow the night of the verdict that I would not rest until I tore down this system of corruption and until I reformed the police department, not just locally but around this country,” she said. “For close to 900 days, we’ve been fighting for justice. And the fight for justice continues.”
Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan said at a Sept. 19, 2016, news conference that the DOJ had opened an inquiry into whether the decision by Shelby, who is white, to shoot Crutcher, an unarmed black man, was a breach of his civil rights.
Jordan declined to comment Friday afternoon, citing ongoing federal civil litigation brought by the Crutcher family, as did Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum. The family’s civil rights lawsuit names Shelby, Jordan and the city of Tulsa as defendants, as well as other officers who were at the scene near 36th Street North and Lewis Avenue.
“The federal review sought to determine whether Shelby violated federal law by willfully using unreasonable force against Crutcher,” U.S. Attorney Trent Shores said in a prewritten statement.
He said federal personnel met with Crutcher’s family and their legal representatives ahead of publicizing the decision.
Shores, who leads prosecution efforts in the federal Northern District of Oklahoma, said federal criminal civil rights laws require prosecutors to establish willful deprivation of a constitutional right beyond a reasonable doubt. He said the threshold is one of the highest legal standards of intent.
“Mistake, misperception, negligence or poor judgment are not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation,” Shores said. “After a careful and thorough review into the facts surrounding the shooting, federal investigators determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a violation of the federal statute.”
Shelby’s attorney, Shannon McMurray, told the Tulsa World on Friday that she and her client are “very, very pleased with the outcome” of the DOJ’s inquiry.
Shelby resigned from the Tulsa Police Department effective August 2017 and has since worked as a Rogers County sheriff’s deputy. McMurray said Shelby’s most recent duty assignment was in Rogers County Courthouse operations.
“I’ve always been confident in all aspects of this case,” she said. “Nobody disagrees that the Crutchers have suffered a lot. That was their son. That was their brother. That was their uncle. But the decisions he made led them to where they are today.”
Shores said the team of agents assigned to review the shooting evaluated materials and evidence from Tulsa police, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office. The team also read transcripts from Shelby’s trial and looked at enhanced video footage of Crutcher being shot.
But, according to Shores, that evidence was not sufficient to establish that Shelby’s use of force was “objectively unreasonable” based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s criteria.
Damario Solomon-Simmons, an attorney for the Crutcher family, said during the afternoon press conference that the existing legal threshold for such cases in effect means “the system is set up to protect officers like Betty Shelby.”
McMurray, though, maintained that evidence clearly shows that Shelby “acted objectively reasonably” during her encounter with Crutcher.
“This is one of the reasons why we, from the very beginning, discussed and have been working daily and diligently to change the system, to reform the laws on a local level but also a national level,” Solomon-Simmons said. “We know what happened on Sept. 16, 2016, was wrong. It was unnecessary. It was unjust.”
Because of that view, Tiffany Crutcher said she and the Terence Crutcher Foundation will be among several hosts of a public discussion Thursday evening about policing reforms. She added that the DOJ’s finding “has motivated me even more to keep fighting another day” to change use-of-force laws.
Shores said the DOJ’s investigation did not find enough evidence to rebut Shelby’s assertion that she shot Crutcher in self-defense “with the mistaken belief that Mr. Crutcher reached into his vehicle in order to retrieve a weapon.”
The issue was a major point of contention in Shelby’s manslaughter case. The Crutcher family asserted that his hands were in the air when he was shot, while Shelby’s attorneys argued that he was attempting to reach into his vehicle with his left hand.
“The evidence is also insufficient to establish that Officer Shelby acted with the specific intent to break the law,” Shores said. “Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed. This decision is limited strictly to the Department’s inability to meet the high legal standard required to prosecute the case under the federal civil rights statute; it does not reflect an assessment of any other aspect of the shooting.”