The Latest Disturbing Twist in the Case of the 73-Year-Old Who Killed an Unarmed Black Man in Oklahoma

The death of Eric Harris has revealed a lot of shenanigans surrounding the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office.

by Allie Conti
Jul 14 2015, 6:50pm

Robert C. Bates. Photo courtesy Tulsa County Sheriff's Office.

On April 2, a 73-year-old reserve sheriff's deputy named Robert C. Bates killed 44-year-old Eric Harris by shooting him in the back at point-blank range. On Monday, Bates pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge, arguing that he accidentally mistook his gun for a Taser.

Harris's death is unique among the bevy of recent cases involving unarmed black men being killed by law enforcement officers because Bates isn't technically a cop, though he did reportedly serve in the Tulsa Police Department for about a year back in the 1960s. In fact, all the evidence suggests the senior citizen is an unqualified former insurance executive with a cowboy streak who's tight with the Tulsa County Sheriff—in part because he has a history of showering gifts and political donations on the sheriff's office.

An affair that already reeked of cronyism got even more ridiculous on Tuesday morning, when the judge trying the case refused to recuse himself. Back on April 22, Tulsa County District Judge James Caputo disclosed that he worked at the sheriff's for a total of six years, that his daughter is currently a civilian employee there, and that he's known Tulsa County Sheriff Glanz for 23 years.

"I've never shied away from a case yet, and I don't intend to now," Caputo announced in court Tuesday. Perhaps realizing how shady this all looks, Caputo put out an official statement as well.

This might not be such an egregious conflict of interest if it weren't for shocking revelations that have emerged in recent months about Tulsa law enforcement. For instance, as part of a 2009 internal report unearthed by theTulsa World, Sergeant Rob Lillard was assigned with finding out whether Bates was treated differently than other reserve officers. He concluded that Bates should never have been given a gun in the first place, and uncovered evidence suggesting he basically bought his way into action.

According to the report, one internal affairs employee was told by Undersheriff Tim Albin to prepare a certificate saying that Bates had completed driver training, even though he hadn't. Another was allegedly told by Albin that Bates only needed to complete 320 hours of field training rather than the normal 480. When asked if Bates was capable of functioning in the field, that employee told Lillard, "Nope."

The reserve coordinator for the sheriff's office also had no idea what was going on. He didn't even know Bates was in the program and tried to raise a fuss after he found out that Bates was driving a personal car equipped with police gear despite not having clearance to do so. Allegedly, he was told by Undersheriff Albin, "This is a shit sandwich, and you will just have to eat it but not acquire a taste for it."

Albin resigned after the 2009 report was unearthed in April. Activists have since called for Sheriff Glanz to do the same, and are also seeking a federal Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into Harris's death. (VICE has reached out to the DOJ for comment and will update if they get back to us.)

On June 29, Harris's family sued Sheriff Glanz, Bates, and other officials. (Glanz has been re-elected six times since first winning the gig in 1988 but has promised not to seek another term.) The suit lays out Bates's 50-year relationship with the Sheriff, which according to various media reports included vacations to the Bahamas and a $2,500 political donation in 2012. Bates also donated expensive forensic equipment and six vehicles to the office between 2009 and 2011, according to the complaint.

What's more, the suit alleges that Bates used unnecessary force during an arrest two months before Harris died. According to the complaint, a man named Terry Byrum—himself a party to the lawsuit—was already on the ground and in handcuffs when Bates arrived on the scene. Bates then allegedly put his foot on the suspect's head and Tased him.

In a body-cam video from the day of shooting, Eric Harris can be seen running under an overcast sky when he's suddenly tackled. Even though someone yells out for a Taser, the unmistakable sound of a gunshot comes next.

"He shot me, he shot me! I'm losing my breath," Harris cries as blood seeps through his white T-shirt.

Bates, apparently realizing that he'd mistaken his gun for a Taser, yelps, "I shot him! I'm sorry." Another person off camera grunts, "Fuck your breath," before the footage cuts out.

If convicted of manslaughter, Bates faces up to four years in prison.

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