The Nebraska prosecutor who declined to file charges after a white bar owner fatally shot a Black man during protests last spring has switched political parties after Democrats criticized his handling of the case.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine planned to register as a Republican on Wednesday, according to the state GOP. The Nebraska Democratic Party passed a resolution last month that said Kleine, who is white, “perpetuated white supremacy” with his comments about 22-year-old James Scurlock, who was shot and killed by Jake Gardner following a scuffle outside Gardner’s bar after the bar’s windows were shattered.
The longtime Democrat, who has been elected as the top prosecutor in Omaha four times, declined to file charges against Gardner because he said Gardner acted in self-defense. But a grand jury that Kleine requested after his initial decision was criticized reviewed the case and decided to charge Gardner with manslaughter, making terroristic threats and two other charges. The case ended when Gardner killed himself in Oregon last month.
After Special Prosecutor Frederick Franklin held a news conference describing the evidence that led to the grand jury charges, Kleine said he stood by his original decision not to file charges. Kleine said he wasn’t sure if the grand jury considered that Scurlock had been “terrorizing” others that night and had been seen on video vandalizing another downtown business shortly before the confrontation outside of Gardner’s bar. Kleine also said he didn’t consider Scurlock a victim.
Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said the party was standing up for its values when it expressed concerns about Kleine's comments through the resolution that passed during an online meeting of the state party's central committee. But Kleeb has also said the party would have continued to support Kleine if he sought re-election.
“Our state central committee passed a resolution dealing with systemic racism,” Kleeb said in a statement Wednesday. “We are not going to be a party that asks for Nebraskans’ votes and then tells them today’s not the day to bring up something uncomfortable.”
The resolution said the Democrats were “denouncing the actions of elected Democrat Don Kleine in his handling of the James Scurlock case in a way that perpetuated white supremacy and sparked deep division in Omaha.”
Kleine said after the resolution passed that he viewed it as a personal attack that he didn’t even have an opportunity to defend himself against. He said he has spent his “whole career helping the underprivileged” and many of his cases have involved minority victims.
Several local and state leaders, including prominent Democrats and Omaha’s Republican mayor, issued statements supporting Kleine after the resolution.
“Don Kleine is a man of character and integrity and is well-respected by both parties. His record as the Douglas County attorney demonstrates knowledge and fair application of the laws of our state,” Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said in a statement at the time. “Mr. Kleine has earned the public trust and deserves better from his own party.”