TULSA, Okla. (CN) – Federal prosecutors said Friday they will not pursue charges against former Tulsa cop Betty Shelby for killing an unarmed black motorist, ending a years-long civil rights investigation.
Shelby shot and killed Terence Crutcher in September 2016 during a traffic stop where he refused to follow her commands and walked towards his disabled SUV in the middle of a street.
Police dashboard and helicopter video show Crutcher walking away from Shelby with both arms up in the air before he was shot. Shelby insisted she fired out of fear he was reaching through the window for a weapon inside the car. No weapon was found on Crutcher or in the car. A federal investigation was launched shortly thereafter.
U.S. Attorney Trent Shores in the Northern District of Oklahoma concluded “federal investigators determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a violation” of civil rights laws.
“The evidence, when viewed as whole, is insufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Shelby’s use of force was ‘objectively unreasonable’ under the Supreme Court’s definition, nor is the evidence sufficient to rebut her assertion that she fired in self-defense with the mistaken belief that Mr. Crutcher reached into his vehicle in order to retrieve a weapon,” Shores said in a statement. “The evidence is also insufficient to establish that Officer Shelby acted with the specific intent to break the law.”
Federal prosecutors informed Crutcher’s family of the decision Friday before the announcement was made.
Shores said federal prosecutors and FBI agents examined all evidence “including witness statements, audio and video recordings, dispatch records, crime scene evidence, ballistics evidence, and medical reports” established by local and state authorities.
In spite of the lack of a weapon, a Tulsa County jury acquitted Shelby of first-degree manslaughter in May 2017. She faced up to life in state prison.
During the weeks-long trial, Shelby’s attorneys elicited groans from the gallery when asking an investigator if a screwdriver found on Crutcher’s center console could be considered a weapon.
In a highly unusual move, the jury entered a letter into the court record stating that Shelby was nonetheless “not blameless” for Crutcher’s death and asked whether she had “other options available to subdue” him before he reached into his car.
The jury foreperson wrote that Crutcher’s life would have been spared if he was shot with a stun gun, but he could not determine beyond a reasonable doubt she did “anything outside of her duties and training” in that situation.
Crutcher’s family sued Shelby and the city for federal civil rights violations one month after her acquittal. They claim he was subjected to excessive force and his equal protection rights were denied.
Shelby resigned from the force two months after her acquittal in what was deemed a “satisfactory separation.” She had been restricted to desk duty after the shooting but was later reinstated.
Shelby later was hired as a sheriff’s deputy in nearby Rogers County. She again made headlines in August 2018 when she taught a four-hour class to other deputies entitled “Surviving the Aftermath of a Critical Incident.”
Shelby said at the time that the class would talk “about the challenges that I face[d] after my critical incident, the challenges that my husband and I were not prepared for,” alluding to the legal and financial stresses she experienced in the racially charged aftermath of the shooting.
“When I was told that I would possibly never be in law enforcement again, I needed to find a purpose,” she said at the time. “So I made a commitment to help my brothers and sisters.”