Why the Trial Over Mike Ramos' Killing Will Stay in Austin
Remember those fishy fliers?
The murder trial involving Austin Police Officer Christopher Taylor for his on-duty killing of Michael Ramos in 2020 is set to commence in just over one month – and now we know that it will take place in Travis County, where it happened.
Judge Dayna Blazey's decision follows a motion from Taylor's defense attorneys that asked for the trial to be moved outside of Austin because, they argued, Taylor could not receive a fair trial here. After witnesses testified in support of both the defense and the state's motions at a hearing on Sept. 14, Blazey issued her ruling from the bench Sept. 15, saying the "defendant has failed to carry his heavy burden of proof" required to warrant moving the trial.
The trial will resume Oct. 16, as planned, with a modified jury selection process. Blazey said that three panels of 100 prospective jurors each would be called for the first three days of trial. If a jury is set that week, opening arguments and presentation of evidence are set to begin the following Monday, Oct. 23.
Last month, Taylor's attorneys, Ken Ervin and Doug O'Connell, laid out their argument for changing the trial venue. An impartial jury could not be impaneled anywhere within the "Austin media market" – a vague area left undefined by the defense – because too many people would have prejudiced views of their client based on pretrial media coverage. Thus, they asked Blazey to move the trial to a new county – ideally one such as Comal or San Saba, both of which are overwhelmingly white and where, in 2020, Donald Trump won with 71% and 89% of the vote, respectively.
One of the problems emphasized by the defense was a thus far unexplained instance of potential jury tampering. During the court's first attempt at seating a jury, fliers that the defense characterized as attempts to intimidate potential jurors were placed on the vehicles of three different jurors. The fliers contained pictures of Taylor and Ramos, with the phrase "Blue Lies Matter" and "Stop Killing Latino People."
The Travis County Sheriff's Office opened an investigation into the matter, but TCSO spokesperson Kristen Dark says, four months later, the case is now suspended. Detectives weren't able to identify a suspect with the evidence they collected, but if new information surfaces they can reopen the investigation. Here's what we do know: There is no reserved parking for prospective jurors at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, where Blazey's courtroom is located. We also know that the only fliers found were the three placed on the vehicles of prospective jurors in this specific trial.
For someone to have accomplished this targeted attempt at jury intimidation, they would have had to hang around the eighth floor of the courthouse, where Blazey's court sits, to identify prospective jurors summoned for the Taylor trial, wait for lunch break, then follow each person down to their vehicles. Later, presumably, when the vehicle was unattended, they would have placed the fliers.
I was at the courthouse that day for the full day of jury selection. Other than prospective jurors, the only members of the public hanging around the eighth floor of the courthouse were a few attorneys interested in the case and a couple of other journalists. Is it possible that the person responsible for placing the fliers was among us and that they pulled off the caper without detection from anyone present, including court security? Sure, it's possible. Is it plausible? Carlos Garcia, an attorney with 33 years' experience trying cases in Travis County – as both a prosecutor and defense attorney – doesn't think so.
"Given that occurrence of only a select few potential jurors being targeted to prejudice them against the defendant," Garcia wrote in a sworn affidavit submitted by the state in their response to the defendant's change-of-venue motion, "it appears more likely that an effort is being made to create the impression that a change of venue is necessary. Otherwise more potential jurors would have been targeted."
Regardless, it's true that a full jury could not be impaneled in May, but as prosecutors pointed out in a response to the defense's motion filed this month, that difficulty was mostly due to a series of unusual events that could be controlled for in a future jury selection process – not because too many of the potential jurors were unfairly prejudiced against Taylor. Per the motion, only 9.7% of 72 prospective jurors said they could not set aside their opinions of the case to hear evidence fairly and issue an impartial verdict. In fact, 12 jurors from that pool of 72 had already been seated by the time Blazey declared a mistrial on May 26, meaning the trial was only two alternate jurors short of seating a full jury. Prosecutors argued that given how close they were before, it would be possible to seat a jury in October.