TULSA, Okla. — The hard-won conviction of a white former Oklahoma police officer who fatally shot his daughter’s unarmed black boyfriend shows the difficulty prosecutors have in convincing jurors to put someone who carries a badge and a gun behind bars, legal experts said Thursday.
A fourth jury convicted 57-year-old ex-Tulsa officer Shannon Kepler late Wednesday of first-degree manslaughter in the 2014 off-duty fatal shooting of 19-year-old Jeremey Lake, who had just started dating Kepler’s then-18-year-old daughter, Lisa.
The lesser charge carries a minimum sentence of four years in prison but sets no maximum term, leaving it up to the judge to decide. The jury recommended that Kepler get 15 years behind bars when he’s sentenced Nov. 20.
Jurors in the first three trials deadlocked 11-1, 10-2 and 6-6, leading the judge to declare mistrials. Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said Thursday that it illustrates the immense challenge prosecutors have in winning the conviction of a police officer.
“In the first trial, we learned from that and realized it’s a very difficult case,” he said. “The question with these jurors is … can you put a police officer in prison?
“We recognize immediately that for the most part, people have a great respect for law enforcement officers, but there are cases when good people make poor decisions,” he said.
The first jury convicted Kepler of recklessly using his firearm, but it and the second jury couldn’t agree on the first-degree murder charge and didn’t have the option of the lesser charge of manslaughter. The third jury did have the manslaughter option but found itself evenly deadlocked.
There also was a racial undercurrent to the trials. Kepler killed Lake days before the fatal shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, fanned the debate over the treatment of minorities by law enforcement.
A single black juror was seated for each of Kepler’s four trials, and civil rights activists accused Kepler’s lawyers of purposely trying to exclude potential black candidates, which they denied.
The combination of race and the police, coupled with the case being set in a part of the country where many revere law enforcement officers, likely made jury deliberations all the more difficult, said Johnny Nhan, associate professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University.
“In this case, you have a high level of respect for the police in a place like Tulsa, there is a daughter (Kepler) is trying to protect. It’s hard to separate jury emotion and personal feelings.
“The legal system advertises itself as a science, but it’s more like an art,” he said Thursday.
Kepler’s lawyers said the 24-year police veteran was trying to protect his daughter because she had run away from home and was living in a crime-ridden neighborhood.
Attorney Richard O’Carroll, who didn’t return several messages seeking comment on the verdict, said Lisa had been in and out of a homeless shelter before the shooting after her father forbade her from bringing men into the family’s house.
Kepler, who retired from the force after he was charged, told investigators that Lake was armed and that he had shot him in self-defense, but police didn’t find a weapon on Lake or at the scene, and several neighbors testified they didn’t see a gun, either.
At his trial this week, Kepler testified that Lake made a move toward his waistband, leading him to believe he was going for a gun.
“He’s bringing it, I’m bringing it,” Kepler said. “It was either him or me. I’m not going to stand there and get shot.”
Prosecutors said Kepler first watched his daughter and Lake from his SUV before approaching them on the street. Lake’s aunt disputed Kepler’s self-defense account and has said her nephew was reaching out to shake Kepler’s hand to introduce himself when Kepler fired.
Even though Kepler was convicted on a lesser charge, Heather Winters, the mother of Lake’s young son, told The Associated Press Thursday that the verdict will help her and the boy move on.
“I am beyond happy,” Winters said. “I cried tears of joy when I found out.”