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Ex-volunteer policeman, 74, jailed for fatal shooting blunder

Published 01/06/2016

Robert Bates said he mistook his handgun for his stun gun (AP)
Robert Bates said he mistook his handgun for his stun gun (AP)

A former Oklahoma volunteer policeman who said he mistook his handgun for his stun gun when he shot dead an unarmed suspect has been jailed for four years.

A judge gave Robert Bates, 74, the maximum penalty recommended by jurors who convicted the wealthy insurance executive of second-degree manslaughter last month .

Reserve sheriff's deputy Bates killed Eric Harris on April 2 2015, while working with Tulsa County deputies during an illegal gun sales sting.

Mr Harris, 44, who had run from officers, was restrained and unarmed when he was shot. Mr Harris was black and Bates is white, but Mr Harris' family has said they do not believe race played a role.

The shooting, which was captured on video, sparked several investigations. Among other things, the investigations revealed an internal memo questioning Bates' qualifications as a volunteer deputy and showed that Bates, a close friend of the sheriff, had donated thousands of dollars in cash, vehicles and equipment to the sheriff's office.

After being sentenced, Bates was led away by deputies. His family members shouted "We love you! We love you!" as he left the Tulsa court.

Judge Bill Musseman said handing down the prison sentence was a "legitimate and moral consequence" of Bates' actions. He said he took into account Bates' age, failing health and dozens of letters written by community members asking for leniency.

Bates was given credit for the time he had spent in the county jail since being convicted. He must serve nine months of probation after his release.

Defence lawyer Clark Brewster said he would appeal against the sentence.

"I'm confident we'll get a new audience through the appellate courts, and you'll be interviewing me about the reversal," he told reporters after the sentencing.

The hearing lasted several hours, with the judge hearing evidence from Mr Harris' teenage son and the youth's mother, who said Mr Harris' death "has left a hole" in her heart.

"He made some mistakes; he battled his demons," Cathy Fraley said, but "he always wanted to do the right thing".

Several character witnesses who supported Bates also gave evidence, including his wife Charlotte, who tearfully asked the judge to give her husband probation and not prison time.

Then Bates, wearing orange jail clothing with his hands shackled, approached Judge Musseman and said: "I'm very remorseful for what happened."

An outside consultant hired to review the sheriff's office following the shooting determined that the agency suffered from a "system-wide failure of leadership and supervision" and had been in a "perceptible decline" for more than a decade. The reserve deputy programme was later suspended.

Weeks after Mr Harris was killed, an internal sheriff's office memo from 2009 was released by a lawyer for Mr Harris' family that alleged superiors knew Bates did not have enough training but pressured others to look the other way because of his relationship with the sheriff and the agency.

A grand jury also investigated the sheriff's office and indicted long-time sheriff Stanley Glanz in September, accusing him of failing to release the 2009 memo. Mr Glanz resigned in November.

The new sheriff sworn into office last month has detailed plans to reform and revive the reserve deputy programme.

Mr Glanz, in his letter seeking leniency for Bates, said he did not believe his long-time friend was "a threat or a danger to anyone and should not be placed in an overcrowded state prison system".

"This is a terrible injustice for a man that made a terrible mistake in a split second," he said.

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