SHAWNEE — In less than two hours last Friday afternoon, a Pottawatomie County jury returned verdicts on four aggravating factors and chose the death penalty for Byron James Shepard, who was convicted in the 2017 killing of Tecumseh Police Officer Justin Terney.
Shepard, 38, of Okemah, had no reaction as the court clerk read the jury’s verdict before a packed courtroom that included Terney’s family and several area police officers. District Judge John G. Canavan has scheduled formal sentencing for 9 a.m. Jan. 3, 2020.
After Friday’s decision, Tecumseh Police Chief J.R. Kidney said he had no words to describe his emotions.
“The justice system came through for us today. I know that’s what the family, I know that’s what law enforcement was looking for,” he said. “We all went to the courtroom with a very good feeling and they didn’t let us down.”
Kidney said Terney, who wanted to be a police officer since he was 3 years old, became an officer at age 21 and started living his dream.
“Less than one year into it, his dream was taken away, so don’t let the memory of Justin Terney die. Remember that he was a young man doing what he loved and fighting for his community the night that he died,” Kidney said.
Officer Terney, 22, died March 27, 2017, from gunshot wounds he suffered the night before in a shootout with Shepard, who was a passenger in a vehicle stopped by Terney that night.
The same jury that chose the death penalty Friday spent 55 minutes deliberating Monday, Nov. 18, and found Shepard guilty of first-degree murder. Over the last four days, the jury heard testimony for the sentencing phase, followed by closing arguments Friday morning to bring the three-week trial to a conclusion.
During the course of the trial, prosecutors argued Shepard, who was a fugitive with a warrant, shot Terney that night to avoid going to jail. Prosecutors pointed out Shepard’s criminal history, as well as past violence and drug use. Shepard’s public defenders argued that the shooting and officer’s death were unintentional, and asked the jury to spare his life and allow him to spend the rest of his life in prison.
In the state’s closing arguments, prosecutor Pattye High told the jury they were tasked with deciding the death penalty because of the choices Shepard made that night, which included lying to the officer and giving him a false name before running into the dark treeline.
Public Defender Shea Smith told jurors they needed to look at Shepard’s entire life and “not just what happened in the field that night.”
Smith, who told jurors they respect the guilty verdict, said the defense tried to show more about Shepard’s life, such as exposure to violence and abuse as a child, longtime drug abuse and other factors for mitigation in the case. Smith said they weren’t trying to excuse anything, but give the jury context about Shepard’s background.
Smith reminded the jury that Shepard has some humanity in him.
“Send him to prison forever and throw away the key,” Smith said as she asked the jury to spare Shepard from death.
She said he would remain sober and on his medications while in prison and couldn’t be a danger to society.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to do what’s in your heart,” Smith told jurors.
But in a final closing, prosecutor Greg Mashburn abruptly and passionately changed the tone of his voice, reminding jurors they were sitting in the jury box to hear this case because Shepard chose to shoot Terney twice that night in 2017.
Holding the murder weapon in his hand and standing near a mannequin dressed in a Tecumseh police officer’s uniform to show the gear they wear, Mashburn said Shepard shot Terney twice that night because he didn’t want to go back to jail.
“He’s a violent, mean, aggressive merciless cop-killer,” Mashburn said, telling them Shepard was “a coward” when he pulled the trigger and killed Terney.
Mashburn said the only just sentence would be death.
“He should never breathe free air again for what he did to Justin Terney,” Mashburn said. “He deserves the death penalty. He earned the death penalty.”