Court records shed light on murder trial of OK cannabis grower LaRue Bratcher
Clay Curtis was declared Oklahoma’s leading defense attorney in 2019. But Curtis has a tough case ahead of him in the first-degree murder trial later this year of 34-year-old LaRue Bratcher, an Oklahoma City cannabis grower who shot and killed a man attempting to break into his facility last year.
Filings in the case are not viewable online. But I had a chance recently to visit the Oklahoma County Court Clerk’s Office and take a look at the case file in person. I had to stand at the clerk’s counter to view the file and then quickly determine which records to copy and how many of them I could afford at $0.50 per page.
Other cases of cannabis businesses being robbed or burglarized in recent weeks and months have begun to attract state and national headlines. In some instances, cannabis workers at businesses with active business licenses have shot and killed intruders and not faced charges.
What I did manage to get from the clerk’s office provides new details about a similar but complicated case that’s drawing its own state-and-national attention. The filings also tell us that defense attorney Curtis faces major challenges where Oklahoma and its long history of tough-on-crime weed laws are still adjusting to legal cannabis.
The night of the shooting
According to court filings, Bratcher says he was at his cannabis grow on Southeast 22nd Street in Oklahoma City late one night in May of last year when he noticed someone enter the hole of a fence and onto his property.
The intruder matched a man Bratcher had spotted previously trying to break into a storage container on the property. Bratcher says that on this second occasion, he watched the man in surveillance images proceed to a south entrance of his building.
An Army veteran, Bratcher retrieved a firearm. Standing at the barricaded metal door, Bratcher says he could hear someone on the other side trying to pry it open. Bratcher squeezed off what he says were three warning rounds at the door’s waist level.
He did so not knowing that the man -- 42-year-old Daniel Hardwick -- was crouched on the other side, rather than standing. One round struck Hardwick’s head and killed him. According to a filing from defense attorney Curtis:
“[Bratcher] eventually notices the burglar lying on the ground unresponsively. He calls the police shortly after and was cooperative with the police, even waving his Miranda rights and giving multiple interviews and statements to police. The police did not arrest him that night. Charges were filed more than a week after detectives staffed the charges with [Oklahoma County District Attorney] David Prater.”
Authorities learn grow license was expired
Bratcher’s cultivation licenses are where the case becomes complicated for attorney Curtis. According to county prosecutors, Bratcher said the night of the incident that he had a state-issued grow license. After a detective pressed him, Bratcher revealed that it had expired.
Bratcher’s wife, Vicky Bratcher, has told the media the couple was facing tens of thousands of dollars in costly new required renovations to their facility before getting their annual grow-license renewal completed with state regulators. That’s when the attempted break-in occurred.
Police also say they seized hundreds of plants and over 1,000 grams of bud at the time of the incident. Bratcher has been in the Oklahoma County jail for a year now. His trial was initially set to begin May 24 but has since been pushed back to October.
Prosecutors intend to present witnesses at Bratcher’s trial who will say, among other things, that his cultivation license had been expired for six months. They’ll also say there was no certificate of compliance from Oklahoma City allowing Bratcher and his company, Premium Smoke, LLC, to operate a grow at the address. Nor had any required cannabis license been issued by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics for Premium Smoke’s address, prosecutors say.
Bratcher is today charged with first-and-second degree murder, unlawful cultivation of cannabis, possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, and possession of an offensive weapon while committing a felony.
Next you may ask yourself why Oklahoma’s stand-your-ground laws didn’t apply. Couldn’t Bratcher argue he was defending himself at his business, even though his operating license had expired?
There’s a critical exception in Oklahoma statutes where the shooter defending him or herself is also engaged in an unlawful activity. By cultivating with an expired license, Bratcher was illegally manufacturing a controlled substance, as far as prosecutors are concerned.
Furthermore, a conviction for first-degree murder in Oklahoma would typically need proof that Bratcher deliberately and maliciously intended to take Hardwick’s life. But such proof is not required where the defendant was also committing a crime at the time of the incident.
Bratcher was cooperative, but it may not matter
Attorneys for Bratcher, on the other hand, point out that it was Bratcher himself who first called the police after the shooting. He’d been cooperative, waved his Miranda rights, and gave statements and interviews. Bratcher and his wife are Army veterans. He’d only wanted to fire warning shots and recognized the intruder from a previous attempted burglary.
Bratcher’s uncle has said at public rallies that he wasn’t looking for trouble. He was simply trying to defend himself. Despite the difficulties in Bratcher’s case, supporters believe he is being treated unfairly.
Wife Vicky Bratcher told Yahoo News earlier this month that prosecutors argued LaRue was a “threat to the community” because of his Army weapons expertise and combat training. The family says Bratcher’s charges were upgraded to the more-severe first degree only after Bratcher had refused to accept a plea deal. Said Vicky Bratcher:
“I feel deflated ... my heart is broken. 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.”
Master Sgt. Gary Knight of the Oklahoma City Police Department said to Yahoo News police were merely responsible for gathering all of the available information in a case and that it was ultimately “up to the [district attorney] to decide from there.”
But Knight added that the men were on opposite sides of the door and Bratcher had no legal standing to shoot Hardwick. “This is not ‘stand your ground,’” Knight said.
Defense attorney Curtis told Yahoo News that such arguments may not matter:
“The evidence shows Mr. Bratcher acted reasonably under the circumstances. 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.”
Dispute over previous weed offense
Then there’s a new wrinkle in Bratcher’s case that further complicates matters for Curtis. Bratcher, it turns out, had previously been convicted in a cannabis-related offense while driving through Texas in October of 2019.
It happened just months before the Oklahoma City shooting. Prosecutors intend to call a Texas sheriff’s deputy as a witness at trial who pulled Bratcher over in Oldham County, Texas. Bratcher seemed nervous during the traffic stop and had containers in the floorboards of his car baring the word “bud,” prosecutors say.
He refused to consent to a search, so a K9 dog was used to inspect the vehicle and alerted to a narcotic odor. Authorities say they then found 20 vacuum-sealed pounds of cannabis in the trunk of Bratcher’s car.
Defense attorney Curtis counters, however, that the Texas case was reduced to misdemeanor possession of less than four ounces of cannabis. Indeed, Texas cannabis prosecutions have plummeted in recent years since lawmakers there legalized hemp making it costly to conduct expensive laboratory tests that distinguish between hemp and THC.
Curtis wants the previous Texas case excluded from the current Oklahoma trial altogether. Defendants, he said in a filing, are to be convicted on the charges facing them at a given time, not previous cases. While there are exceptions, they don’t apply in the current case, Curtis argues:
“The prosecutor’s bare assertion that possession of marijuana charges in [Texas] is ‘visibly connected’ to Mr. Bratcher’s current charges is woefully inadequate. … Because the prosecutor has not and cannot demonstrate a ‘visible connection’ between possessing marijuana in Texas and Mr. Bratcher’s present charges, such evidence is inadmissible.”
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