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Tulsa Police Officer Will Face Manslaughter Charge In Unarmed Man's Death

Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by police in Tulsa., Okla., on Friday, in a case that has prompted a Justice Department investigation.
Tulsa Police
Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by police in Tulsa., Okla., on Friday, in a case that has prompted a Justice Department investigation.

Betty Shelby, the Tulsa Police Department officer who shot and killed Terence Crutcher, is being charged with first-degree manslaughter in the case, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler says.

Kunzweiler announced the charge Thursday afternoon, six days after Crutcher died in a controversial encounterthat was captured on video by a police helicopter camera and dashboard cameras.

"A warrant has been issued for her arrest," and arrangements are being made with Shelby's attorney for Shelby's surrender, Kunzweiler said in announcing the felony charge (see video from local TV news KJRH). He said he had instructed his staff to file charges against Shelby at the start of Thursday's brief news conference.

Shelby will be taken into custody by the Tulsa County Sheriff's Department, Kunzweiler added.

Saying that Crutcher's death "was on the hearts and minds of many people in this community," Kunzweiler praised the residents of Tulsa, saying the community "has consistently demonstrated a willingness to respect the judicial process."

Here's how we described the case earlier this week:

"Crutcher, who was black, died next to his SUV that had stopped in the middle of a two-lane road in Tulsa, Okla. Seconds before he was shot, police dashcam and helicopter footage shows, he had walked to his car with his hands held over his head as Officer Betty Shelby walked behind him, her gun raised.


"Shelby, who is white, was one of four police officers who were standing at the rear bumper of Crutcher's car as he stood next to his vehicle around 7:45 p.m. Friday. She's also the officer who shot him once, in the upper body — and who then radioed, "Shots fired." Police say another officer used his Taser on Crutcher at nearly the same time he was shot."

When the Tulsa Police Department released police videos of the moments around Crutcher's death, Chief Chuck Jordan said the footage was "very disturbing; it's very difficult to watch."

We'll post one of those videos here, with the warning that the contents are graphic.

As the case drew national interest, Shelby's attorney, Scott Wood, told the Tulsa World that the officer, who at 42 is a nearly five-year veteran of the Tulsa police force, believed Crutcher was reaching for something inside his car.

On Monday, Chief Jordan had dismissed the idea that Crutcher had a weapon, saying, "I'm going to tell you right here and now: There was no gun on the suspect or in the suspect's vehicle."

The day after the videos were released to the public, Tulsa police said that the drug PCP had been found in Crutcher's vehicle. A medical examiner's autopsy findings and toxicology report are pending — but we'll note that when NPR's David Greene asked Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett if the discovery of an illegal hallucinogen was relevant to the case, the mayor replied, "No, it isn't," and said the police had already mentioned the discovery to Crutcher's family.

The district attorney's affidavit that was filed Thursday relays some of what Shelby told a homicide detective in an interview held days after the shooting: that she feared for her life and thought Crutcher "was going to kill her," and that as she followed him to his SUV, "she was yelling for him to stop and get on his knees repeatedly."

As member station KGOU reports, "The affidavit states Shelby reacted unreasonably by escalating the situation, became emotionally involved, and overreacted."

Shortly after the manslaughter charge against Shelby was announced, the Tulsa Police Department said on its Facebook page that "several demonstrations" were taking place in the city. It added that there was "no credible information" to suggest that any of the gatherings, protests or rallies will not be peaceful.

Noting that he had contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office about the case immediately after the shooting, Chief Jordan promised earlier this week, "We will achieve justice in this case."

The U.S. Justice Department is carrying out a civil rights investigation into Crutcher's death.

Crutcher's sister Tiffany Crutcher welcomed the prosecutor's announcement, saying, "We want a conviction, and when that happens, this is a small victory, but we know we have to get ready to fight this war."

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin released a statement Thursday saying she hoped the decision to charge the officer provides some peace to Crutcher's family and the people of Tulsa. She adds:

"[W]e must remain patient as the case works its way through the justice system, where a jury likely will be asked to decide whether officer Betty Shelby is guilty of the crime. And we must remember that in our justice system, officer Shelby is innocent until proven guilty.

"No matter how you feel about the prosecutors' decision in this case, I hope Oklahomans will respect the views of your friends and neighbors because we still have to live peacefully together as we try to make sense of the circumstances that led to Mr. Crutcher's death.

"I want to compliment Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan and Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler as well as the citizens of Tulsa for keeping peace and order during this difficult time. I continue to ask that all of us keep the Crutcher and Shelby families in our prayers."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.