Despite a request for a last-minute postponement, jury selection will begin Monday for Shannon Kepler, a former Tulsa police officer who is facing his fifth trial in connection with the shooting death of his eldest daughter’s boyfriend, Jeremey Lake.
Kepler was charged in federal court after the state Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his state manslaughter conviction and 15-year prison term on jurisdictional grounds.
Lake, 19, was shot to death Aug. 5, 2014, outside his aunt’s home just west of downtown Tulsa.
Kepler, 60, has never denied shooting Lake. However, he claims he shot in self-defense while off-duty after he drove his wife’s sport utility vehicle to Lake’s home while in search of his daughter, Lisa.
Lisa, then 19, had become involved in a romantic relationship with Lake after her family dropped her off days earlier at a homeless shelter as punishment for her behavior.
Shannon Kepler went looking for Lisa on that fateful night when she did not come home after several days.
Kepler’s first three first-degree murder trials in state court — between November 2016 and July 2017 — ended in hung juries. A fourth state trial on first-degree murder ended in October 2017 with the jury convicting the 24-year veteran of the Tulsa Police Department of the lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter after it was allowed as an option for jurors to consider.
However, unlike his first four trials, Kepler’s fifth trial will be held in federal court.
A federal grand jury charged Kepler with first-degree murder and related charges in November in anticipation that a state appellate court would toss his state manslaughter conviction on jurisdictional grounds.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, in an opinion issued March 18, overturned Kepler’s Tulsa County District Court first-degree manslaughter conviction and 15-year prison term, citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The appellate court agreed with a lower court’s determination that Kepler’s case met the criteria for overturning based on a July U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation was never dissolved by Congress, resulting in the state not having jurisdiction to try Kepler.
Kepler is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Lake’s death in the 200 block of North Maybelle Avenue was within the still-active, 1860s-era boundaries of the tribe’s reservation.
A three-count federal indictment filed Nov. 5 charges Kepler with first-degree murder in Indian Country, causing a death by use of a firearm during a crime of violence in Indian Country and assault with a dangerous weapon in Indian Country.
The latter charge is linked to an allegation that Kepler also shot his .357-caliber Magnum revolver in the direction of Lake’s half-brother, who was a juvenile at the time, after shooting Lake.
The sibling was not injured.
In a late development, U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell last week turned away a request by Kepler’s attorney that the trial start be postponed for up to 60 days.
Writing in an April 9 motion for a continuance, Kepler’s attorney, Stan Monroe, cited the ongoing trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the COVID-19 pandemic as reasons for delaying the trial.
Monroe noted that both Kepler’s and Chauvin’s cases have been “highly publicized.”
“While it is unknown at this time whether the Chauvin trial will be concluded by (the start of Kepler’s trial), the fact that Mr. Kepler, a former Tulsa Police Officer, will be undergoing trial either during or upon the heels of the Chauvin trial, gives rise to the likelihood of prejudice against Mr. Kepler, a former Tulsa police officer.”
The motion also notes that the trial will be held during the COVID-19 pandemic and that a 60-day postponement would permit others to be vaccinated against the virus and allow the trial to begin “without concerns of the impact the virus may have on prospective jurors.”
Frizzell denied the continuance request during a pre-trial hearing.
Monroe, who was not Kepler’s attorney during his state trials, said Thursday that the fifth trial will feature “some differences and some similarities” to his past trials.
Monroe said prosecutors plan for the first time to possibly introduce testimony from a forensic expert on blood pattern evidence.
Monroe also said prosecutors so far have not objected to the defense introducing evidence of a gun found in a trash can at the police station following the shooting of Lake.
Kepler had hoped to introduce the so-called trash can gun as evidence in his state trials to bolster claims that Lake was somehow armed when he encountered Kepler outside his home.
But the judge in Kepler’s state trial banned any mention of the gun found in the trashcan during the trials because no evidence linked it to the shooting.
No gun was found on Lake following his shooting death.
The trial is expected to last at least five days and will feature as many as 37 prosecution witnesses, 16 of which are Tulsa police officers.
The trial will be held in the old federal courthouse at 224 S. Boulder Ave. so that another judge can utilize Frizzell’s regular courtroom at the Page Belcher Federal Building, which is the largest among those at the courthouse.