OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Prosecutors brought murder and hate-crime charges on Friday against two white men arrested in the shootings of four black men and a black woman, three of them fatally, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a week ago.
Black lawmakers in Oklahoma and civil rights leaders, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, have pressed authorities to bring the hate-crime charges against Jake England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 33, to acknowledge their racial motive for gunning down unsuspecting victims before dawn on April 6.
Shortly before the killings, England had lamented on his Facebook page that two years had passed since his father was killed by a black man, to whom he referred with a racial slur.
Police have described the shootings as random because the pair of self-employed laborers did not know any of their victims. One witness said the gunman simply pulled his pickup truck to the side of the street and asked for directions before opening fire.
The suspects were arrested on Sunday after multiple anonymous telephone tips named them as the killers. They are being held on more than $9 million bond each and have yet to enter pleas.
Conviction on murder charges in Oklahoma could result in a death sentence, so the misdemeanor hate-crime charge could have little bearing on the penalty, but civil rights leaders have said it is important.
“Today’s hate-crime charges are a step in the right direction,” Jackson said in a telephone interview. “But the FBI and the Department of Justice must be a part of this. When you have five people shot randomly and arbitrarily, for revenge, that is a gross civil rights violation.”
Jackson said the state’s hate crime statute was not strong enough to be a deterrent, saying 11 cases have been prosecuted in Tulsa County in a decade. He said Oklahoma had a permissive gun culture and a “Stand Your Ground” law that emboldens vigilantes and “keeps people in danger.”
Police said three men and a woman were shot within a mile of each other in north Tulsa. The body of a fifth victim was discovered outside a nearby funeral home in the predominantly black part of the city.
England and Watts have confessed, a police spokesman told The New York Times. England admitted to police he shot three of the victims, and Watts shot two others, the report said.
Those killed were identified as Dannaer Fields, Bobby Clark, and William Allen, who were all shot in the chest.
The two suspects were also charged with shooting with intent to kill Deon Tucker, who was wounded in the shoulder, and David Hall, who was wounded in the stomach.
Both England and Watts were described in the charging document as white, though England has been described as at least part Native American.
The Tulsa killings followed the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, a case that has captured national attention largely because of race.
Martin, 17, was black, and the shooter, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, is white and Hispanic. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder.
Jackson credited the outcry over the delay in arresting Zimmerman in Martin’s death with pushing Tulsa authorities to act decisively and quickly in this case.
A funeral for Bobby Clark was held on Friday, with two more funerals to be held in coming days.
“(Clark) is now a martyr in the annals of those who died in our quest for dignity and respect,” Jackson said.
Reporting By Andrew Stern; Editing by Philip Barbara and Stacey Joyce