News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 14, 2013

Parents who lost son to stray police bullet want law changed

By Jessica Bruha
CNHI News Service

NOBLE, Okla. — The parents of a 5-year-old boy killed by a police officer's stray bullet are fighting to change Oklahoma laws that allowed the record of the officer's conviction of second-degree manslaughter to be thrown out.

Austin Haley was killed in 2007 when former police officer Paul Bradley Rogers and his former supervising officer, Robert Shawn Richardson, responded to a neighbor's call about removing a snake from a birdhouse. The snake was believed to be poisonous, so Richardson told Rogers to shoot the snake, but the boy was struck in the process.

Rogers was later found guilty of second-degree manslaughter, and he and Richardson received deferred sentences. That deferment allowed Rogers to get his record expunged, thanks to a law that was changed last year, said Austin's mother, Renee Haley.

"Normally deferred sentences would be for much lesser crimes," she said. "(This loophole) wasn't meant for people who killed a little 5-year-old boy. It was meant for lesser crimes."

Neither Rogers nor Richardson served any jail time, and they were asked by the court to do some community service with animals. Haley said Richardson is also seeking to have his record expunged.

"It was just hard on us, and they haven't received anything, in my opinion," she said. "Now it's even off the record."

Attorney Dave Stockwell said the expungement means Rogers' conviction is no longer available through court records or in online court databases, but it would still show up through a background check through the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation or the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

Stockwell said the officers' names also will still show up in Internet searches.

"He can't run and hide from this thing," Stockwell said.

Haley said she and her husband, Jack, have already started the process of trying to change the state law. They've talked to state senators and representatives, and they hoped to get a meeting with Gov. Mary Fallin.

"We can't let this go on," she said. "It just isn't right."

Haley said that on the day of the shooting, the officers never asked if anyone was behind the birdhouse where Rogers was shooting. The officers didn't know that Austin was down at the family's pond with his grandfather and younger brother. 

"The first shot went between my dad's legs while he stood there on the dock," Haley said, adding that her dad felt the bullet move his pants and saw it land in the pond in front of him. "He started screaming, 'Stop, don't shoot! There’s someone down here!'"

About six seconds later, there was a second shot fired, which again missed the snake but traveled through the back of Austin's head, killing him. 

Haley said said while they understand the officer didn't point his gun at their son, they still don't see it as an accident.

"They can become police officers again," she said. "No one in the city of Noble would want that."

Jessica Bruha is a reporter for The Norman Transcript in Norman, Okla.