Pictured: San Saba County Courthouse. San Saba County is one of two counties deemed desirable for a change of venue requested by Christopher Taylor’s attorneys. (credit: Aualliso, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)
It’s no surprise that APD Officer Christopher Taylor’s attorneys want his murder trial moved out of progressive Travis County. Taylor’s fatal shooting of Mike Ramos – an unarmed, Black and Latino man – was a flashpoint in Austin, and Ramos’ name became a rallying cry at protests for police reform.
The change of venue motion Taylor’s defense attorneys filed July 25 doesn’t explicitly address Travis County’s politics, but argues that unfavorable body-cam footage and news stories about Ramos’ death spread so widely that any county within “the Austin media market” will be too prejudiced against Taylor. Defense attorneys Doug O’Connell and Ken Ervin don’t define that market’s boundaries, but ask that Judge Dayna Blazey move the trial to Comal or San Saba County, both 91% white, and that Gov. Greg Abbott won over Beto O’Rourke in 2022 by 3-1 and 9-1 margins, respectively.
Granting a change of venue motion is unheard of in 21st century Travis County. During a June pre-trial hearing in the case, the defense and prosecution could only recall three times that trials had ever been moved out of the county – once in 1977 and twice in 1993.
If granted, the venue change would set a startling precedent. The argument in the July 25 motion rests, largely, on outrage over Ramos’ death expressed on social media. If emotional tweets are grounds to move a trial, every indicted cop in Austin can expect to be judged by a jury in Trump-country, rather than by a jury of their peers.
In the motion, after making their arguments, O’Connell and Ervin provide Judge Blazey with affidavits from seven prominent Austin lawyers who agree that Taylor can’t get a fair trial here. The Statesman described them as “some of the city’s most seasoned attorneys,” each having “decades of criminal court experience in Austin on some of the city’s highest-profile cases.”
That’s true. But they are also an interesting mix of people close to Judge Blazey, attorneys with ties to some of the state’s most high-power and problematic right-wingers, and attorneys whose careers have been built on securing “not guilty” verdicts for killers of teenagers and killers with eyewitnesses. They include: Judge Blazey’s ex-husband, Judge Blazey’s ex-boss, an attorney whose firm represents Alex Jones, an attorney who represents Nate Paul, and an attorney who told a jury that the slaying of a Black teen was justified by pointing to a close-up photo of his tattoos and saying, “this is the bad guy. He’s dead because he’s the bad guy.”
Prejudicial and Inflammatory
To provide prejudice against Taylor in Austin and most surrounding counties, Taylor’s defense points to news stories. They concede that, per the Court of Criminal Appeals, “accurate and objective” news stories are not considered “prejudicial or inflammatory,” so instead they argue that tweets in response to these news stories are the true problem. (To what extent the spread of tweets is geographically bound, they do not address.) They add that news outlets have reported that Taylor was indicted on a second murder charge for the 2019 on-duty fatal shooting of Dr. Mauris DeSilva, and say that information likely won’t be admissible at trial. They point out that at least three potential jurors said they’d seen body-cam footage of Ramos’ killing and would not be able to put it out of their minds. (Note: The court called hundreds of potential jurors.) They also argue that flyers placed on potential jurors’ cars by an unknown party threatened the jury pool. (The flyer said, “I want you gringo for the murder of our brother Michael Brent Ramos,” “blue lies matter,” and “stop killing Latino people.”)
The well-known and well-respected attorneys who wrote affidavits for the defense say news articles were sympathetic to Ramos and his grieving mother. Several point out that Blazey already called a mistrial over difficulty finding a jury. (The attorneys don’t mention that a direct factor in that mistrial was a mistake: Blazey’s courtroom was locked and reporters were denied entry during jury selection, violating Taylor’s constitutional right to a public trial. As a result, Blazey had to dismiss 80 potential jurors and start over with a new set.)
Their arguments echo each other. But who are these people?
We Present Exhibit A, Your Ex-Husband
“Exhibit A,” the first sworn affidavit in the motion, is written by Charles F. Baird, a former judge on Texas’ highest criminal court who, like Blazey, is a Democrat. He is also her ex-husband, to whom she was married from 1982 to 1992.
Former D.A. Margaret Moore also provided an affidavit. She is Judge Blazey’s former boss. Blazey worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Travis County for 30 years, and for the final three years under the leadership of then-D.A. Moore. Moore was also now-D.A. José Garza’s political opponent in 2020 and lost.
Another affidavit comes from Sam Bassett, whose higher-up David Minton represented Alex Jones during his high-profile divorce proceedings and after his 2020 DWI arrest. A 2017 Statesman photo shows Jones with his arm wrapped around Minton, pretending to kiss him. That same month, a Statesman reporter quoted Minton describing Jones on Infowars as a mix of “humor, bombasity, sarcasm, wit.” (Jones started spreading the conspiracy theory that “no one died” during the Sandy Hook Elementary School school shooting in 2014, for reference.)
The next to provide an affidavit is Wayne Meissner. Meissner’s clients include the most powerful state judge in Texas, Republican Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht. Hecht has been in hot water several times for shady campaign finance practices and other judicial ethics violations. Meissner represented Hecht in 2007 when he was accused of accepting discounted legal work that amounted to a large, unreported campaign donation. (That legal work for which he received the discount helped resolve another scandal – he’d been sanctioned by the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct for improperly using his office to promote a George W. Bush SCOTUS nominee in more than 120 media interviews.)
Next up on the list of affidavits is Gerry Morris, who currently represents Nate Paul, the real estate mogul that A.G. Ken Paxton is accused of accepting bribes from. Paxton’s impeachment trial next month will examine those alleged bribes. Although they work at different firms, Morris is also friendly with the Alex Jones-connected Bassett – they’ve both endorsed each other on LinkedIn, where Morris says of Bassett: “highly recommend Sam. He is a skilled, caring and diligent lawyer.”
Next to support the change of venue motion is Joe James Sawyer, an excellent defense attorney whose accomplishments include “not guilty” verdicts in several cases that sound a lot like murder. His website describes them like this: “Client shot an unarmed man two times in the chest killing him in front of three eyewitnesses who testified at trial. The shooting occurred in a parking lot at an apartment complex. VERDICT: NOT GUILTY.” “Client’s sister testified that she helped her brother clean up the murder scene at his house and saw him wrap the dead man’s body in a blanket before the body was dumped … VERDICT: NOT GUILTY.” “Client shot and killed an unarmed nineteen year old college student, shooting him multiple times with a Glock Model 23 loaded with .40 caliber hollow points. The client was outside of his home and the young boy was in the street when he was killed. The victim had no criminal history. VERDICT: NOT GUILTY.”
Finally, there is an affidavit from Joe Turner. In 2000, back when Doug O’Connell was a prosecutor, Turner and O’Connell faced off in the murder trial of Paul Anders Saustrup. Saustrup had followed Eric Demart Smith, a Black teenager, for two blocks before shooting him twice in the back. Turner argued that Saustrup acted in self-defense because he believed Smith had broken into his girlfriend’s car minutes earlier. The Statesman quoted O’Connell during closing arguments: “This case is certainly not about self-defense. The defendant shot a drunk kid in the back two times.” Turner argued to the jury that it’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. “Here’s the good guy,” he said, pointing to Saustrup. “And here,” he said, displaying a photo of Smith’s tattoos, “is the bad guy. He’s dead because he’s the bad guy.” Saustrup was found not guilty.
To recap, these are the seven white people telling Judge Blazey that it’s a good idea to move a trial over the murder of a Black man to one of two conservative counties that are both 91% white, in order: her ex-husband, a guy whose firm represents Alex Jones, a guy who represents a sketchy Republican judge, her ex-boss, a guy who represents Nate Paul, a guy whose career has been built on acquitting conspicuous killers, and a guy who justified a Black teen’s murder by pointing out his tattoos and saying “this is the bad guy.”
The District Attorney’s office has 30 days to respond to the change of venue motion. If they do, it will trigger a hearing on the matter.
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.