TULSA, Okla. — Within hours of shootings that terrified Tulsa’s north side and left three people dead, leaders of the predominantly black community declared the spree a hate crime and warned of a possible vigilante response.
Quick arrests relieved many residents and ended talk of more violence, but community leaders still want the case treated as a hate crime. “We have to send a message,” one said Tuesday.
But with a first conviction under Oklahoma’s hate crimes law carrying only up to a year in jail, some questioned whether it was worth the effort. The family of one victim and some residents said they’d rather see prosecutors focus on getting the death penalty.
“I think they should go for murder. As many people’s lives they involved by what they did in this thing, they should go for murder,” said Deatrah Fields, whose aunt Dannaer Fields was killed. She added, “They can go ahead and seek the death penalty, too.”
Jake England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 33, have been held on suspicion of first-degree murder and other charges since their arrest Sunday. They are expected to be formally charged during a Monday court appearance.
While police have not described the shootings as racially motivated, they have said one motive may have been revenge for the fatal shooting of England’s father by a black man. A day before the shootings, England apparently wrote a Facebook post saying Thursday was the second anniversary of his father’s death, using a racial slur and lamenting that “it’s hard not to go off.”
Community leaders point to those comments and the fact that all the shooting victims were black in calling for a hate crime prosecution.
“(England’s) Facebook post was a help to us in helping us understand that this was a hate crime. … If it is something other than that, you would have to explain that to me,” said the Rev. Warren Blakney Sr., president of the Tulsa NAACP. “When you went to commit the crimes, you didn’t go to south Tulsa and say, ‘I’m going to shoot some black folks I see.’ You went to the heart where you know most black folk live and you went on a shooting spree.”
While police have described the two suspects as white, a family friend said England was Cherokee Indian. Watts’ brothers have denied accusations that he’s a racist, and one said their family includes a mix of races.
Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris has said if the evidence supports a hate-crime charge, he will file it, and a lawmaker who represents the area where the shootings happened urged him to do so.
“My constituents often feel like the possibility of a hate crime is sort of swept under the rug because we don’t want to talk about it,” said state Rep. Jabar Shumate. “We have to send a message.”
Oklahoma’s hate crime law applies in cases where a defendant targets a victim specifically because of that person’s race, religion, ancestry, natural origin or disability. The weak penalties, however, have resulted in it usually only being used in cases involving low-level misdemeanors where prosecutors want a longer sentence.
“The fact of the matter is our hate-crime statute in Oklahoma isn’t very useful on high-end violent felonies,” said Scott Rowland, first assistant district attorney in Oklahoma County.
He said he’s pursued hate crime charges in simple assault cases motivated by racial bias, but prosecutors could risk muddying the waters by adding a hate crime charge to a murder case.
“It might very well make it more complicated needlessly,” Rowland said.
A conviction under the federal hate crimes statute can carry up to life in prison without parole, but U.S. Attorney Thomas Scott Woodward said it’s likely that federal charges would be pursued only if justice wasn’t served in the state courts.
Oklahoma law enforcement agencies reported an average of 51 hate crimes per year from 2008 to 2010, according to the most recent data from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. The most common hate crime during those years was anti-black vandalism committed by white offenders.
A hate-related killing has not been reported in Oklahoma since 2009, when there was one. Oklahoma City police say a group of black men approached 43-year-old Roberta Kay Hill, a white woman, and shouted racial slurs before one man fired several shots, killing her. That case remains unsolved.
In north Tulsa, some residents say more important than proving the elements of a hate crime is ensuring that the shooters in the latest case are punished to the fullest extent of the law.
“What everyone is after is justice,” said Ralph Eady, 51, who owns a men’s clothing shop near where one victim’s body was discovered. “They don’t care if it’s a hate crime, a race crime, white-on-black crime — they want justice. They want the death penalty.”