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Guilty or innocent?

Three years, three trials, and three hung juries—Shannon Kepler’s fate is still undecided

Shannon Kepler

Derik Hefner

On August 5, 2014, Tulsa police officer Shannon Kepler shot and killed Jeremey Lake, his daughter’s boyfriend.

Kepler’s relationship with his daughter, Lisa, 18, was volatile. Days before the shooting, Kepler and his wife Gina, both Tulsa cops since 1990, had kicked Lisa out of the house, dropping her off at the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless in an apparent act of tough love. Lisa soon met Jeremey, 19, who offered her shelter at his aunt’s house northwest of downtown. The two struck up a romance and soon changed their Facebook statuses to “in a relationship.” Kepler, who was monitoring his daughter’s social media activity, used the Tulsa Police Department records system to obtain Jeremey’s address.

The night of August 5, Lisa and Jeremey walked back to his aunt’s house after an evening at Guthrie Green. Just as they were arriving home, Kepler, who was off duty at the time, pulled up in his SUV and confronted the two.

Kepler and Jeremey had a brief exchange. Gun shots rang out—Kepler fired two rounds, hitting Jeremey in the lungs and heart. Kepler turned and fired several more rounds in the direction of his daughter and Jeremey’s 13-year-old brother, Michael Hamilton, who was on the porch of his aunt’s house.

Lisa screamed as Kepler climbed into his SUV and drove away. Onlookers gathered around the scene. Someone called 911. First responders soon arrived and pronounced Jeremey dead.

When the police realized the shooter was one of their own, they issued an all-points bulletin to TPD personnel. For several hours, Kepler was a fugitive. The next morning, Kepler and Gina were arrested. Gina was accused of being an accessory after the fact for helping Kepler evade arrest. (She was never charged.)

On August 18, 2014, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler charged Shannon Kepler with first-degree murder.  Three years and three mistrials later, a jury still can’t agree on why he pulled the trigger.

The killing of Jeremey Lake was quickly absorbed into the larger ongoing narrative about police officers’ use of lethal force, though it didn’t quite fit—Kepler was off duty and the conflict was domestic in nature.

But Kepler’s job as a police officer likely had a hand in three hung juries. As we’ve seen in many officer-involved killings—from Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown, to Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby, who killed Terence Crutcher—it’s much harder to impeach the character or judgment of a cop to the point of a guilty conviction, even when the victim is unarmed. Even when there’s video. And even, apparently, when the officer is off duty.

In March 2014, months before Kepler gunned down Jeremey Lake, two Albuquerque cops, Dominique Perez and Keith Sandy, shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless man with schizophrenia who was camping in public space without a permit. The incident was captured on video by the neighbor who initially called the police on Boyd. Perez and Sandy were charged with second-degree murder. Their trial, like Kepler’s, ended in a hung jury last October. Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez—who was not DA at the time the two cops were charged—announced in February that Perez and Sandy would not be retried.

“There is no reason to believe the case against Detective Sandy and Officer Perez could be tried better or more exhaustively at a second trial, or that a second jury could reach a different outcome,” Torrez said in a press conference. The two walked free.

In April 2015, North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shot and killed Walter Scott after Scott fled a traffic stop on foot. Slager initially claimed that Scott attacked him and wrestled his Taser away. But when cell phone video emerged showing Slager shooting Scott—five times, in the back—as he ran away, Slager was charged with murder. After 22 hours of deliberation over four days, the jury could not reach a verdict, and a mistrial was declared. Slager pled guilty to a federal charge of violating Scott’s civil rights, and in exchange the state agreed it would not re-try him for murder.

In July 2015, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing shot Samuel DuBose at point-blank range in the head during a routine traffic stop. The incident was captured on Tensing’s body camera. His murder trial ended in a hung jury last fall, as did his retrial in June.

In Kepler’s first trial, held last November, Kepler was found guilty of two counts of reckless conduct with a firearm, stemming from the shots fired at Lisa and Jeremey’s brother, and sentenced to a year in prison. For the charge of first-degree murder, 11 jurors voted to convict him, but after seven hours of deliberation, one not-guilty holdout caused Judge Sharon Holmes to declare a mistrial.

In the second trial, held this past February, the jury was once again hung, this time with two holdouts for not guilty. Judge Holmes declared a second mistrial.

In the third trial, held early last month, Judge Holmes gave the jury for the first time the option of convicting Kepler for the lesser charge of manslaughter in the heat of passion. After only two and a half hours of deliberation, the jury reported to the judge that they were deadlocked 6–6, and neither side expected the other to budge. Yet another mistrial was declared.

Over the course of the saga, Kepler’s attorney, Richard O’Carroll, has used every conceivable trick in the book on behalf of his client, from legal maneuvers meant to delay the case to impugning the character and reliability of not just the witnesses, but of Kunzweiler and Holmes. He insisted more than once that both needed to be recused from the case—Holmes because of her participation in an NAACP/Christian Minister Alliance fundraiser for a youth center (in denying O’Carroll’s recusal request, District Judge Rebecca Nightingale said it “smacks of abuse of the legal system”), and Kunzweiler for allegedly coaching Jeremey’s brother prior to testifying during a preliminary hearing. O’Carroll also accused Holmes and Kunzweiler of colluding, and appealed unsuccessfully to the Oklahoma Supreme Court when District Judge Bill Musseman denied O’Carroll’s request to remove both of them.

Kepler testified that he believed Jeremey was on drugs, though a toxicology report found nothing in his system. O’Carroll also suggested that Jeremey sexually abused his brother, Michael—an accusation Michael angrily contested—and accused Lisa of lying. In the second trial, Lisa and O’Carroll had what amounted to a 90-minute screaming match when she took the stand.

Most crucially, Kepler has insisted that he saw Jeremey holding a gun that night—the only suggestion of evidence that could possibly justify Kepler pulling the trigger.

No witness saw a gun on Jeremey. Nor did any of the first responders—including some of Kepler’s own colleagues—find a gun at the scene. It was Kepler’s word against a dozen others. The holdout jurors took Kepler’s word.

On July 10, Kunzweiler issued a statement to the press:

“ … I am disappointed in the court’s decision to declare a mistrial after only 2.5 hours of deliberation by the jury. Our system of justice is premised upon the finality of judgement. Justice for Mr. Kepler and for Jeremy Lake demands it … It is my responsibility to assess the strength of evidence, and to determine the likelihood of success in any criminal case. It is also my duty as a guardian of the public’s safety and as a steward of its resources to balance those interests in an appropriate manner. … Finally, our law presumes any person charged with a crime to be presumed innocent of that crime until a judge or a jury determines otherwise.

“Mr. Kepler is entitled to that presumption.”

On October 9, Kepler will face a jury of his peers for a fourth time. Whether Kepler is guilty or innocent, both he and Jeremey Lake deserve the finality of judgment.

For more from Joshua, read his article on City Council’s attempt to effectively outlaw panhandling.