In 2019, inmates at an Oklahoma jail say, they were led into empty rooms by corrections officers and forced to listen to the children’s song “Baby Shark” for hours at high volume. Now, two of the officers have been punished.
Last week, Gregory Cornell Butler Jr. and Christian Charles Miles each pleaded no contest to three counts of cruelty to a prisoner. A judge in Oklahoma County District Court banned Butler, 24, and Miles, 23, from working in law enforcement during a two-year probation term.
Both officers were also named as defendants in a 2021 lawsuit, which is ongoing. An attorney representing four former Oklahoma County Detention Center inmates who claim they were tortured by the officers said he was content with Butler’s and Miles’s sentences in the criminal prosecution.
“The fact that they’re not allowed to work in law enforcement in the future is important,” Daniel Smolen told The Washington Post. “And it’s impactful because it means they’re not going to be able to torture people in the future in a jail setting.”
Lance B. Phillips, Butler’s attorney, said his client wanted to avoid a jury trial, citing concerns that ongoing problems at the jail might influence the outcome of the case. Sixteen people died at the jail last year, according to KFOR, and two have died this year.
“Our biggest fear in a jury trial is that people are going to want to try the Oklahoma County jail … and not the facts of this case,” Phillips said.
Miles’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment but told the Oklahoman that the officers were simply trying to maintain order at the jail without much leadership from the top. He told the newspaper that the children’s music was meant to calm inmates — “basically like a time out.”
Christopher Raymond Hendershott, a former lieutenant at the jail, was charged with five counts of cruelty to a prisoner in relation to his supervision of the officers accused of playing “Baby Shark.” Four of his charges were dismissed Wednesday, and the district attorney’s office has filed a motion to dismiss the final charge, according to court documents provided by Hendershott’s attorney, Gary J. James.
James said he prepared for a trial but there was scarce evidence connecting Hendershott, 52, to the allegations.
“I started to kind of wonder why Hendershott was even charged,” James said.
Butler, Miles and Hendershott were charged by the Oklahoma County district attorney’s office in October 2020. The affidavit stated that Butler and Miles caused “undue emotional stress on the inmates who were most likely already suffering from physical stressors.” Butler and Miles resigned from their positions, and Hendershott retired.
In November 2021, four former inmates filed a federal lawsuit against Butler, Miles, Oklahoma County’s sheriff, and other county and law enforcement officials. The plaintiffs alleged that in 2019, jail officers handcuffed them to a wall and forced them to stand in an empty room while staffers blasted “Baby Shark” for up to four hours. The lawsuit alleges the officers’ actions were “enhanced interrogation” and a “torture tactic.”
“Baby Shark” was released in 2015 by Pinkfong, a Korean children’s entertainment company, and it exploded in popularity. A YouTube video of the song, with its repetitive and catchy lyrics, has more than 12 billion views.
In the lawsuit, a psychologist said the song’s high pitches can be “physiologically painful” to hear. In 2019, officials in West Palm Beach, Fla., played the song to steer away homeless people. Even some parents have been bothered listening to it.
The lawsuit in Oklahoma County was suspended while the criminal case wrapped up, Smolen said, noting that one plaintiff died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in jail in September.
On Thursday, Judge Martha Oakes ordered Butler and Miles each to pay fines totaling $500 and to complete 40 hours of community service in addition to the two years of probation.
Phillips said Butler and Miles will avoid a conviction on their records if they follow the court’s directives over the next two years.
“Butler is just kind of glad that, you know, after two-and-a-half, almost three years of litigation, that he can finally start to put this thing behind him,” Phillips said.
Smolen, meanwhile, said he is looking forward to continuing the civil case. He said Butler and Miles should be held accountable there, too.
“The fact that we can now proceed in a civil matter is a positive thing,” he said.