TULSA, Okla. (AP) – Two men accused in a shooting rampage in Tulsa are headed to court in a case closely watched by some residents who say it has highlighted the city’s racial divisions.
Jake England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 33, face murder and hate crimes charges stemming from the Easter weekend shootings that killed William Allen, Bobby Clark and Dannaer Fields as they were walking near their homes. Their preliminary hearing, during which a judge will decide if prosecutors have enough evidence to proceed to trial, is scheduled for Wednesday.
The shootings happened in a predominantly black section of the city and all of the victims were black. Watts is white and England identifies himself as Cherokee Indian. Authorities believe England may have targeted black people because he wanted to avenge his father’s shooting death by a black man two years ago.
Some residents of the north Tulsa neighborhood where the shootings happened expressed doubts that justice will be served and said the racial disparities in this city of 391,000 people can be seen just in how much attention the case has garnered.
“If it was two blacks who killed three whites, they would have brought the rafters down on them,” said north Tulsa resident James McClellan, who lives close to where one of the killings occurred. “My granddaddy always told me there were two types of justice: white justice and black justice.”
David Green, another resident of the neighborhood, said if two black people were facing a trial for randomly gunning down three white people, “we’d still be hearing about it.”
“Now, it’s all hush-hush,” Green said. “That’s just the way it is.”
Prosecutors plan to call about a dozen witnesses during the preliminary hearing and urged skeptics to follow the case.
“There’s no question in our minds we’re going to do everything in our power to see that justice is served,” said First Assistant District Attorney Doug Drummond.
He said prosecutors will wait until after the preliminary hearing to decide whether to seek the death penalty.
Shortly before the Easter weekend shooting rampage, England apparently wrote a Facebook post saying that it was the second anniversary of his father’s death, using a racial slur and lamenting that “it’s hard not to go off.” From his jail cell, England has said he had no ill-will toward black people.
Pete Silva, Watts’ public defender, and Clark Brewster, England’s attorney, said they are reviewing some 400-plus pages of police reports and other documents generated by investigators.
“We want to look very closely at the facts and circumstances leading up to the arrest of Mr. Watts and the statements that flowed from that arrest which may or may not be admissible in court,” Silva said.
The shootings happened not far from one of the nation’s worst race riots more than 90 years ago, where as many as 300 blacks died.
Shirley LeRoy, who lives in the neighborhood, is among those planning to attend this week’s hearing. She and others say the Tulsa case brings to mind the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. That case sparked protests over the delay in charging the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot the unarmed teenager. Martin’s supporters said the teen was racially profiled because he was black. George Zimmerman claims self-defense, saying Martin attacked him.
“I hope they are given the justice they deserve. But if they walked free, if justice is not served the way they think it should be served, there’s going to be a lot of rebellion going on,” LeRoy said. “It’s going to be like the thing in Florida.”
The Rev. Warren Blakney Sr., president of the Tulsa NAACP, said he hopes the judicial system will “do what it’s supposed to do,” but acknowledged there is some “dubiousness” among members of the community that England and Watts will be held to a different standard.
Blakney said that if Watts or England were to broker a plea bargain or get off on a technicality, that would confirm a long-held belief among some residents here that the justice system continues “to not value black life.”
“It will cause some disarray in this community if these guys are let off through some judicial trick or some agreement in the back room, then it’s going to cause a great deal of unrest,” he said.