A jury recommended Kepler serve 15 years in prison for the lesser charge of manslaughter, according to his defense attorney, Richard O’Carroll. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Nov. 20.
Kepler, who was an off-duty police officer at the time of the incident, said he was acting in self-defense when he fatally shot Lake. He said he thought Lake was armed with a gun, the Associated Press reported, but no weapon was found on or near Lake’s body.
Kepler’s three previous trials, in November, February and July, were all declared mistrials after they ended with hung juries. Each trial was tinged with racial overtones and civil rights activists accused Kepler’s lawyers of trying to minimize the number of black jurors, CBS reported. Each of the three hung juries had only one African American juror.
Lake’s death took place during a particularly tense time in the country, just four days before Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer. Brown’s death spurred unrest in the city, led to protests across the country and set off a nationwide debate about the way black people are treated by law enforcement.
In another Tulsa case that drew national attention, an Oklahoma jury in May acquitted Betty Shelby, a white police officer, in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher. A prosecutor had charged Shelby with first-degree manslaughter, saying she became “emotionally involved to the point that she overreacted.” She was one of only a few female officers to be charged in a fatal shooting in the past decade.
Civil rights activists lauded Wednesday’s verdict as a rare conviction involving a fatal shooting of a black person at the hands of law enforcement, though he wasn’t on duty at the time of the killing. Police officers rarely face charges for fatal shootings, and most of those who do are cleared or acquitted, The Washington Post has reported.
Kepler’s daughter, Lisa Kepler, had just started dating Lake when he was fatally shot. She had been living in a homeless shelter on and off, after being kicked out of her parents’ home. Kepler said he learned through his daughter’s Facebook profile that she had begun dating Lake, the Tulsa World reported. Kepler testified that his daughter’s relationships and interactions with boys had created major conflict at home.
Kepler testified to the jury that he went to the home where Lake lived with his aunt because he was concerned for his daughter’s safety. Kepler, a 24-year-veteran of the force, had uncovered information about Lake using tools available through the Tulsa Police Department.
Investigators later recovered a copy of a police report from an incident that took place when Lake was a minor. Lake’s address and presumed race — black — were written on the back, homicide detective Mark Kennedy testified last week, according to the Tulsa Police Department.
Lisa Kepler was walking with her boyfriend near his home when she saw her father’s black Chevrolet Suburban drive toward them. When he asked her what she was doing there, she walked away, according to police records. Lake then walked toward the SUV and told Kepler he was his daughter’s boyfriend. Kepler then shot Lake, he later admitted, claiming that he thought he saw him reach for a gun.
“He’s bringing it, I’m bringing it,” Kepler told the courtroom on Wednesday, according to the AP. “It was either him or me. I’m not going to stand there and get shot.”
But Lake’s aunt testified that her nephew was actually reaching out to shake Kepler’s hand and introduce himself when he fired, CBS News reported.
Prosecutors alleged in their closing arguments that Kepler “hunted” Lake down and initiated the altercation with him because he was “the boy” his daughter had chosen to date, the Tulsa World reported.
Assistant District Attorney Kevin Gray noted in court that Kepler left the scene without calling 911 or attempting to giving medical attention to Lake, the Tulsa World reported. Kepler turned himself in about 2½ hours after the shooting, and retired from the force after being charged.
O’Carroll, Kepler’s lawyer, told The Washington Post his client’s fourth trial was “not a level playing field by any stretch of the imagination.”
“If the government is going to prosecute you four times in a row,” he said. “The odds of you being convicted go up.”
“They argued racism without a shred of evidence,” O’Carroll added, arguing the judge “was biased from the beginning. I know that sounds like sour grapes, but it’s the truth.”