By G.W. Schulz
The public details of what led to cannabis cultivator Larue Bratcher being accused last year of first-degree murder by Oklahoma County prosecutors are frustratingly slim. His trial is scheduled to begin May 24. I’m hoping to attend if I can manage it and report back here.
None of the filings in Bratcher’s case at the moment are viewable to the public online. Not even the charging papers. But it’s quickly become an important Oklahoma test case in my view.
There have been several instances recently of Oklahoma cannabis businesses being robbed and burglarized. Cannabis entrepreneurs are already major targets due simply to the fact that they’re forced to handle so much cash.
Confusion over when they can defend themselves with force and not face life in an Oklahoma prison seems only like it would lead to more trouble in the future.
“What Larue Bratcher did was reasonable, and God forbid any one of us ever find ourselves in that situation,” his defense attorney, Clay Curtis, told Oklahoma City’s KFOR in March.
A 34-year-old black Army veteran, Bratcher says he was firing warning shots as a 42-year-old white man named Daniel Hardwick attempted for the second consecutive night in late May of last year to break into Bratcher’s grow facility on Southeast 22nd Street in Oklahoma City.
Bratcher’s business, Premium Smoke, LLC, had been operating legitimately after receiving approval for a cannabis-cultivation license from the state of Oklahoma in November of 2018. Bratcher and his wife had somewhere between 450 and 480 plants underway at the time of the attempted break-in last year, according to press accounts.
Their state cultivation license had expired by that time, however, and Larue was working on getting it renewed. Local officials wanted upgrades to Premium Smoke’s facility that hadn’t been required when its license was approved the first time.
Defense attorney Curtis told the media Bratcher was doing everything he could to maintain the cultivation license and stay compliant. Bratcher insists today he was only trying to fire warning shots and that Hardwick was struck as the two men stood on opposite sides of a door. Police in Oklahoma City do not dispute that Hardwick was trying to break into the facility.
Oklahoma’s stand-your-ground laws permit someone at their place of business to use force to defend themselves if they reasonably believe someone is attempting to commit unlawful and forcible entry.
Oklahoma County prosecutors accused Bratcher of murder only after authorities learned his cultivation license had expired. He was also accused of illegally growing cannabis, and Premium Smoke’s plants were seized. Bratcher has been in the Oklahoma County jail since last year.
His initial charge was second-degree murder, which is far less severe than first degree and can result in as few as 10 years in prison. Bratcher’s charge was later upgraded to first-degree murder, which in Oklahoma can lead to the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
First-degree would ordinarily require proof that the defendant maliciously and deliberately took the life of another person. There’s a critical exception in state law, however. Proof of malice is not required where the defendant was also committing a crime. In this case, Bratcher’s crime was manufacturing a controlled substance with an expired state cultivation license.
In last week’s GCM roundup of headlines, you may have seen the story of a dispensary with an active state license in Ardmore that was robbed at gunpoint in early May. An employee retrieved a firearm and shot the intruder to death. The only charges filed in that case to my knowledge are against the intruder’s accomplice who was waiting in a car outside. (Her charging documents are viewable online, for the record.)
Without having more access to the Bratcher case filings, it’s hard to know whether drawing parallels between these two cases is fair. But the contrast on the surface is notable. Some national news sites that cover black culture and politics are seeing race dynamics in Bratcher’s case that can’t go ignored.
The reason we generally try in the United States to make court records accessible to the public online with some exceptions is so the public can watchdog the courts, police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to ensure everyone’s being treated fairly. Some forgiveness is granted to smaller jurisdictions where they don’t have a lot of money. Oklahoma County is not a smaller jurisdiction without a lot of money.
Only Bratcher’s family is speaking publicly for the most part. The office of Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater isn’t saying much. Oklahoma City police also haven’t said much other than to acknowledge there was a break-in. It was Bratcher himself who called the police after the incident. Stay tuned. It feels like there’s an important story here. We just can’t see all of its contours yet.
Previously published on the Green Country Monitor, May 16, 2021.