Right after the Jerome Ersland case started making local headlines and leading local newscasts, I posted a piece, titled “In Defense of Prater,” which argued Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater had no choice but to bring charges against the pharmacist.
That piece, which also called for calm in the Oklahoma City community, was posted May 31, 2009. Ersland has now been convicted of murder and faces life in prison, and people here remain divided over his conviction, but this much is clear: As I argued before, Prater was right to bring the charges, and he acted with integrity in a situation fraught with political risk and overcharged emotions.
For those who need reminded about the case, Ersland was the pharmacist on duty at the Reliable Discount Pharmacy in Oklahoma City when two young black males stormed into the store May 19, 2009 in an armed robbery attempt. Ersland, who is white, shot one of the intruders, 16-year-old Antwun Parker, who fell to the floor, and then chased the other intruder as he fled from the store. Ersland then came back into the store, retrieved another weapon and shot Parker five more times, killing him, according to prosecutors.
Much of the event was caught by surveillance cameras. You can watch the video here. An autopsy report showed that Parker was still alive when Ersland shot him the second time. These two major pieces of evidence left Prater, pictured right, with no choice but to bring charges. Ersland’s statements after the shooting raised questions as well, according to media reports, but it was the video and the autopsy report that dictated a thorough investigation that led to the charges.
Again, Prater simply had no choice but to charge Ersland. The argument that Prater was making a political statement about gun rights was ludicrous then and as it is now. Prater has steadfastly argued that Ersland was well within his legal rights to shoot initially. This was never the Second-Amendment case some wanted it to be. Prater knew he would take flak over the issue, but he had to take action based on the extremely public evidence.
The initial argument that the charges were also somehow tied to racial politics was just as ludicrous as the Second-Amendment argument and was never a major issue. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) urged people to use restraint in how they responded to the case, and The Oklahoman editorial page failed to fire up the bigots here with this little horrible ditty of a paragraph in a piece (“Calming up: Restraint laudable in NAACP’s reaction,” June 3, 2009) that supposedly applauded the local organization’s calming action:
The national organization has been increasingly radical; its local branch has suffered from a leadership void for years. NAACP-fueled tempers have flared over the sale of the Skirvin Plaza hotel, the beating of a black suspect violently resisting arrest by white police officers and even the Oklahoma City bombing. A local NAACP official once likened Bill Clinton to Jesus Christ.
What Bill Clinton’s similarity to Jesus Christ has to do with the Ersland case is something people need to take up with the newspaper’s Clinton-obsessed editorial writers, but it seems obvious the paragraph was intended to stoke paranoia and perhaps even more hatred among the bigots here.
In any event, had he stopped with the initial shooting, Ersland would have undoubtedly been widely hailed as a hero here and that would have been it. Now he sits in the Oklahoma County jail awaiting formal sentencing after his conviction. He faces life in prison with the possibility of parole. For some people, this seems unjust. Ersland was just doing his job as a pharmacist and did nothing to precipitate the robbery; others point to the fact that Ersland turned his back to Parker as he retrieved another weapon.
Those supporting Ersland have a main argument: No one knows how they might react in such a volatile situation and that Ersland was in a particular and understandable emotional state when he shot Parker the second time. (Perhaps one could even argue he was temporarily insane or mentally unfit at the time of the second shooting.) There’s some validity to the argument, and armed robbers should face severe consequences in a civilized, legal society.
But just as importantly a civilized, legal society should also determine when people in protection of themselves and others go too far and cross the line into criminal behavior. That’s what a jury essentially determined after weighing the evidence.
These basic arguments are endless in an American culture dominated by guns, but what isn’t arguable is Prater’s conduct in the case. His conduct was and remains a textbook case of legal integrity.