LaRue Bratcher, a 34-year-old Black Army veteran from Oklahoma, remains behind bars on a charge of first-degree murder more than a year after he shot and killed a white man allegedly trying to break into his marijuana grow business.
With his trial date delayed until later this year, Bratcher’s family and friends and members of the Oklahoma City community are rallying behind him, saying the murder charge is unjust.
“I feel like this was an injustice for the simple fact that if the roles were reversed, if this was a white person inside the facility, he would not be in this situation,” Bratcher’s wife, Vicky Bratcher, told Yahoo News in a video interview.
“Someone broke into his place,” Bratcher’s uncle, Derrick Neighbors, said at a rally last month. “He didn’t go out looking for trouble. He was in his own place of business.”
In 2018 when Oklahoma voters legalized medical marijuana, Bratcher established Premium Smoke LLC, a marijuana grow shop located in Oklahoma City, whose business license expired a year later. Bratcher had planned to renew his license in 2019, his wife said, but learned he would not be allowed to do so until he made nearly $100,000 worth of renovations to the warehouse that housed it, so he held off.
On May 27, 2020, around 1 a.m., Bratcher was at the grow operation warehouse when Daniel Hardwick, a 42-year-old white man, allegedly attempted to break into the business for the second consecutive night. Video from that night reportedly shows Hardwick park his car at the rear of the shop, walk to the business’s door and jostle with the door handle, attempting to gain entry.
“He was trying to break in when the business owner, who was inside the business at the time, apparently opened fire with a handgun, striking and killing the man who was breaking in,” Master Sgt. Gary Knight with the Oklahoma City Police Department told KFOR.
Bratcher called the police shortly after the shooting, and once at the scene, officers called the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority to ensure the business was legal. When they found out that the business’s license had expired, Bratcher was arrested for operating a grow shop illegally, a felony, and was held on $5,000 bond. He was not, however, initially arrested in Hardwick’s death. In addition to arresting Bratcher, authorities also seized 480 marijuana plants worth an estimated $1,500,000.
A day after the arrest, Bratcher was released on bond. But just a week later, the city’s district attorney’s office reviewed the case and upgraded Bratcher’s charges to second-degree murder. One week later, police raided Bratcher’s home, escorting him, his children and his wife to the street, and arrested Bratcher again. Then, after he refused to accept a plea deal late last year, Bratcher’s charges were upgraded to first-degree murder. The family told Yahoo News that it does not understand why.
Individuals convicted of second-degree murder in Oklahoma can expect to serve a minimum of 10 years in prison to a life sentence, which is classified as 45 years in the state of Oklahoma, with eligibility for parole after serving 85 percent of the sentence. The penalties for those convicted of first-degree murder vary but include a life sentence without the possibility of parole, or death.
Despite Oklahoma being a state with a “stand your ground” law, or castle doctrine, those rights do not apply to those who are found to have committed a felony. Prosecutors say that because Bratcher operated his grow business without a license, he was felonious and any self-defense clause is thrown out.
Knight also told Yahoo News that because Hardwick was on the other side of the door, Bratcher had no legal standing to shoot him.
“[Bratcher] shot a burglar who had been working on the doorknob,” Knight said. “To use deadly force you have to determine you or the life of an innocent person is in imminent peril. The guy was on the other side of the door. ... This is not ‘stand your ground.’”
Knight added that officers did not arrest Bratcher initially in Hardwick’s death because it’s not their job to determine who was right or wrong. Police are responsible only for gathering all of the information at the scene, Knight said, and “it’s up to the DA to decide from there.”
The Oklahoma County district attorney’s office did not return Yahoo News’ request for comment.
Bratcher’s lawyer, Clay Curtis, believes that even without the “stand your ground” defense, Bratcher acted in a “reasonable” manner.
“The evidence shows Mr. Bratcher acted reasonably under the circumstances,” Curtis told Yahoo News. “I think anyone would be in fear for their life in that circumstance. ... This case isn’t about us growing weed in terms of the homicide, it’s about whether people think he acted reasonably under the circumstances.”
Bratcher’s wife, who also served in the U.S. military, believes the courts are making Hardwick out to be the victim and using her husband’s Army training against him.
“We’ve been fighting for this country and at the end of the day, it feels like you come home and it doesn’t mean anything to anybody,” Vicky Bratcher said.
Vicky added that at last year’s bond hearing, prosecutors said her husband was a “threat to the community” because of his previous combat training and expertise with a weapon.
“They used our experience of being a veteran [against us],” she said. “That’s literally a slap in the face.”
A petition in support of Bratcher’s release had received more than 5,800 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon. Dozens of demonstrators marched through downtown Oklahoma City last month in support of Bratcher and protested outside the county jail.
“When you’re in trouble, somebody has to fight for you,” Neighbors, Bratcher’s uncle, said. “This is my family and we’re going to fight for him.”
The trial date for Bratcher has been set for Oct. 11 of this year.
Feeling a mix of emotions, Vicky Bratcher is cautiously optimistic that justice will prevail.
“I feel deflated ... my heart is broken,” she said. “This whole year has been very hard. I am still managing the warehouse, taking care of the kids and making sure that everything at home is good for his return. But it’s been hard to know that I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority updated its policy this year to allow cardholders to apply for a new license while still using their expired one until the new one comes in the mail.
(Cover thumbnail photo: Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Vicky Bratcher)
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