TULSA, Okla. (CN) – In opening statements Wednesday for the former Tulsa police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black motorist, the defense attorneys accused prosecutors of bringing charges too quickly out of fear of public backlash.
Betty Shelby, 43, faces up to life in state prison for killing Terence Crutcher, 40, in September last year after he failed to comply with her instructions as he walked toward her police cruiser in the middle of a street.
Crutcher is shown on police dashboard camera and helicopter video later walking away with both arms in the air toward his disabled SUV during the 3-minute-long incident. Shelby has insisted that she fired her drawn weapon out of fear he was reaching for a weapon inside the car – no weapon was found on Crutcher or in the car.
Crutcher has said she was scared and thought Crutcher was on drugs. A medical examiner concluded in October that Crutcher had “acute phencyclidine intoxication” when he died. Also known as angel dust or PCP, the drug is known to alter moods unpredictably and cause paranoia.
Shelby’s attorney Shannon McMurray, of Tulsa, told jurors that Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler was the only person who acted out of fear in this case, when he charged Shelby too quickly. She accused him of filing the case before the police investigation concluded, and that he had his office’s investigator step in for the police investigator assigned the case.
McMurray said a female witness who called 911 said Crutcher screamed, “It’s gonna blow!” and reached under his seat. She said a second person who called 911 said, “I think something dangerous is going to happen.”
She told jurors that Shelby did not act unreasonably, that the officer gave Crutcher “every opportunity” to comply with her instructions. She said police are not trained to see what a person pulls from a car because “action beats reaction” every time.
“When someone is going for lethal, you do not go less lethal,” McMurray said, according to The Tulsa World.
Assistant District Attorney Kevin Gray told jurors that Shelby was allowed to look at the police dashboard and helicopter videos before making a statement to detectives, implying that she received special treatment.
McMurray acknowledged that her client was emotional while giving her statement, but said that was a normal reaction to taking a life. She said Shelby tried to help Crutcher afterward, but was not allowed to, as she was the shooter.
Shelby in April denied that she is racist. She told “60 Minutes” that she is sorrowful for Crutcher’s death, but that he “caused his own death.”
After the “60 Minutes” broadcast, Tulsa County Judge Doug Drummond scolded Crutcher for agreeing to the interview and complicating the jury selection process. He had not issued a gag order, but did ask both sides to refrain from making statements outside of court.
The Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police agreed with Crutcher’s claim that prosecutors jumped the gun on charging her, filing a grievance against Kunzweiler last week with the Oklahoma Bar Association. The police union claims he charged Shelby due to public and political pressure.
The jury was seated Wednesday morning: three white men, seven white women and two black women.