One of Austin’s Most Important Police Trials Is Off to a Strange Start
Curiouser and curiouser
By Austin Sanders, Fri., May 26, 2023
This week saw the start of the historic trial of Austin police Officer Christopher Taylor, believed to be the first APD officer in history to face trial for alleged first-degree murder on duty. Just three days in, the trial has already proved to be unusual.
Before attorneys had uttered the first words of their opening arguments, unusual decisions from the relatively green Travis County District Judge Dayna Blazey raised eyebrows. First, she decided that Taylor's defense will have access to some of his Austin Police Department personnel records relating to misconduct investigations, but prosecutors won't; after half a day of jury selection, she threw out the entire pool due to the public and press being denied entry, and today, May 24, she said the trial could last a month, with court sessions beginning at 9am and ending at 6pm each day.
The shots that killed Michael Ramos April 24, 2020, became a flash point in Austin – a 911 caller reported that they believed Ramos, a Black and Latino man, was selling drugs from his car and that he was armed. When police arrived, guns drawn, Ramos complied with commands, body-cam video shows. After tensions rose, APD Officer Mitchell Pieper shot Ramos with a lead-pellet bag. Ramos jumped in his car and was slowly driving away from police when Taylor shot him three times with regular bullets, killing him.
Police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd one month later, and while much of the country marched to end police violence, invoking the name of George Floyd, Austinites chanted for George Floyd and Mike Ramos. Taylor was indicted for killing Ramos about a year later, and six months after that he was indicted on a second murder charge, for the 2019 on-duty fatal shooting of Dr. Mauris DeSilva.
Blazey, who worked as a prosecutor in the Travis County District Attorney's Office for decades, does not have much experience from the bench. Seated in 2021, Blazey defeated two-term incumbent David Wahlberg in the 2020 Democratic primary to take the bench in the 167th District Court (in Travis County, Democrats are virtually certain to win general elections in judicial races). During much of the pandemic, trials were suspended and then backlogged. The Taylor murder trial is just the second trial, of any kind, that Blazey has presided over, and it is shaping up to be a strange one.
In November, the state issued a subpoena to the Austin Police Department seeking to obtain Taylor's personnel file – a specific portion of which, known as the G file, would contain records from APD's internal misconduct investigations, including statements made by APD officers about the fatal shootings of Ramos and DeSilva. Two months later, the city of Austin filed a motion to partially quash the D.A.'s request – they didn't want to hand over contents of Taylor's record stored in the G file.
City Attorney Anne Morgan argued in the city's motion that the state law governing G file access (Chapter 143 of the Local Government Code) and subsequent court rulings have made clear that the file is "privileged and confidential," and for materials within it to be introduced in a criminal trial, first the judge would need to inspect them to determine if the file contained Garrity materials (compelled statements made by public employees during misconduct investigations that could incriminate them, which are inadmissible in court) or Brady materials (evidence that would indicate the defendant's innocence).
Following a May 15 pretrial hearing over the city's motion, Blazey ruled that the city must turn over the G file to her court for inspection. The records were to be turned over to the state and defense after the court inspected them.
But three days later, in a late-night email, Taylor's attorneys notified the court they had an "update" on the judge's order, because they believed some of the materials in the G file contained Garrity materials. In another email, one of Taylor's attorneys looped in two other attorneys, representing officers whose statements to Internal Affairs would be subpoenaed, and asked if they could come to court the next day to register their objection to the subpoena on behalf of their clients.
The next day, May 19, a group of attorneys arrived at the courthouse to argue that the state should not be granted any materials within the G file – only the defense should get to see them, a request that appears to have no legal precedent. Ultimately, Blazey issued an order, signed the same day, declaring that her inspection found that the records contained Brady material and thus would only be handed over to the defense, a decision which also appears to have no legal precedent.
Prosecutors moved to challenge the court's decision, arguing in a motion filed this Monday, May 22, that the unusual order would prevent the D.A. from "fulfilling his constitutional duty" to "illuminate the court with the truth of the cause, so that the judge and jury may properly render justice." The state argued that access to the file was important, because it would allow them to determine whether some officers, who will serve as key eyewitnesses throughout the trial, "are testifying consistently or inconsistently with" the statements they had already provided to Internal Affairs investigators.
Blazey denied the state's motion at a pretrial hearing that same day, shortly before jury selection was to begin. No new evidence was submitted at that hearing. The state could have appealed the judge's ruling to a higher court, but they declined to do so and will proceed to trial without access to the G file. Following that hearing, the state filed a motion asking that the court bar the defense from introducing G file contents at trial, given that prosecutors won't be able to review it. Blazey granted that motion.
It's important to emphasize the dynamic that unfolded here. Making certain records stored in the G file public has been a push among justice advocates in Austin for years, which the city has resisted. But this was not activists demanding access to investigative records currently kept secret; it was the District Attorney's Office, the highest law enforcement agency in the county, seeking the records to strengthen their case in a murder trial, where they are prosecuting a defendant who, as an Austin police officer, is a city employee. The city went to court to block protected release of those records, and they succeeded.
After this, jury selection Monday also involved a bizarre mistake – bailiffs denied the public and press entrance to the courtroom during jury selection, despite the constitutional right to public trial. Minutes after the Chronicle pressed the court via email about blocking press access, Blazey decided to dismiss the entire pool of potential jurors and start the process over with a new set of potential jurors Tuesday.
Blazey said from the bench that she did not realize the courtroom door had been locked, though, notably, emails from a bailiff to the Chronicle days earlier explicitly stated, "No media will be allowed into the courtroom during the jury selection."
Jury selection ran all day Tuesday and was still underway Wednesday as we went to press. Opening arguments are set to begin this week; check back next week and online for a breakdown of the first week of testimony and evidence.
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