Robert Bates Describes Eric Harris' Death To 'Today' In First Public Comments: "This Could Happen To Anyone"
The man who shot Eric Harris while working as a volunteer deputy for the Tulsa Sheriff's Office in Oklahoma last week has finally spoken out to the media. On Friday morning, 73-year-old Robert Bates spoke out on NBC's The Today Show , repeating his claim that he didn't mean to fire his handgun at a prone Eric Harris, but meant to grab his taser instead. Bates, who's worked as a Sheriff's Office deputy for several years (in a volunteer capacity that's now become highly controversial), told NBC's Matt Lauer that he never wanted to kill anyone, that the incident is his life's biggest regret, and that "this can happen to anyone."
Bates has been charged with manslaughter in the second-degree, which in Oklahoma carries a minimum sentence of two years in prison, and a maximum of four, and the level of contrition and regret he shows could count for something.
His reaction on the video, frankly, is pretty telling. After Harris fled the scene of an alleged illegal gun sale (part of a sting operation), and was tackled to the pavement, Bates announced "taser, taser," before pulling out his gun and firing a single shot. He immediately said "I shot him, I'm sorry," followed by other voices on the scene quickly directing verbal abuse at Harris, screaming "you f**king ran," and when Harris complained he was losing his breath, "f**k your breath!"
After Bates described the events of the day, Lauer asked him to stand up and demonstrate where his taser was holstered, as compared to his firearm. Bates demonstrated that they were indeed in very different places — the taser close to the left side of his chest, while the gun was holstered at the side of his right hip. Lauer responded that, "People are going to look at that, Mr. Bates, they're going to say 'how could you make this mistake?'"
Bates replied by invoking other allegedly mistaken uses of deadly force around the country, though he didn't cite any specific ones.
Well, let me say this has happened a number of times around the country, I have read about it in the past. I thought to myself after reading several cases, I don't understand how this can happen. You must believe me, it can happen to anyone.
While there's no certainty what other cases Bates is referring to, his situation bears some similarities to the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant. In the aftermath of the Harris shooting, as detailed by CNN, Tulsa Police Department Sergeant Jim Clark (that's a separate entity from the Tulsa Sheriff's Office, mind you) suggested that Bates had fallen prey to a widely disputed theory of crucial mistakes under stress, referred to as "slip and capture."
This defense was also invoked by the defense of BART cop Johannes Mehserle, who killed Grant back in 2009 and insisted he'd meant to grab his taser — according to CNN, a criminal justice expert they spoke to told them it's "junk science," though many in the policing community seem to disagree.
There's been a more damaging allegation making the rounds recently, however, which Bates spoke to specifically — a report by the Tulsa World alleging that Bates' weapons training confirmation had been deliberately falsified, adding to their earlier report that he was part of a wealthy cadre of donors who were effectively allowed to "play cop." Tulsa Sheriff's Office Major Shannon Clark told NBC News that they wouldn't address what they consider an unconfirmed "rumor."
The media outlet that is putting that information out is using unconfirmed sources and also relying on anonymity. We don't respond to rumor.
At least one sheriff's office has spoken out on some of Bates' claims, however, as the Tulsa Worldnoted in an update — the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department in Arizona (that's Joe Arpaio country) told them that Bates' post-shooting claim of receiving active shooter training from them was unsupported by any of their records, and that as a non-member, he wouldn't have qualified for such training.
Image: NBC News