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Former Tulsa Judge: Race Massacre Criminal Charges For Entities Like City, State Likely Not Possible

Chris Polansky
Flanked by anthropologist Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield (left) and historian Scott Ellsworth, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum addresses reporters at the Tulsa Fire Museum, shortly after the discovery of a mass grave at Oaklawn Cemetery on Oct. 19, 2020.

Addressing a meeting of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee held virtually Monday afternoon, a retired Tulsa County presiding judge said he thought it was unlikely that criminal charges could be brought against governmental entity like the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County or the state of Oklahoma -- though civil cases may succeed.

"There was no doubt that white Tulsa officials were largely to blame for the massacre," said former judge William Kellough. "They not only failed to prevent the bloodshed, but had also deputized white civilians who took part in the burning and the killing."

"There were numerous criminal acts which were perpetrated not only by the civilian white mob, but also enabled, incited, and with some participation by the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County and even possibly the state of Oklahoma," Kellough said.

Kellough addressed the committee at the request of several members who at previous meetings have questioned why the graves search has not investigated with the urgency of an active crime scene with the potential for charges to be brought.

Kellough said relevant crimes like murder require a living defendant who is a human individual, not a governmental or corporate entity.

"The perpetrators themselves, any one of them living today could be prosecuted, just as we saw prison guards at Auschwitz, 90-years-old, being tried in courtrooms in Germany. The same thing could happen here for murder," Kellough said, but the likelihood of any massacre participants still being alive 100 years later is extremely implausible.

Kellough said the law of criminal conspiracy could be applied to governments, but he believed its statute of limitations would prohibit it from being applied to the case of the massacre.

"I want to reemphasize that this does not preclude the possibility of money damages," Kellough said.

A group of plaintiffs is currently bringing a suit against the city, county, state and other entities, seeking damages caused by an alleged ongoing "public nuisance" caused by the massacre.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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