During Closing Arguments in Christopher Taylor Murder Trial, Attorneys Appeal to Sense of Fear, Justice Among Jurors

Prosecutors Gary Cobb, left, and Rob Drummond (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The Chronicle will be in the courtroom and provide ongoing coverage of the Christopher Taylor trial. Catch up on the case and the ramifications of the verdict in this story.

After more than two hours of closing arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys, delivered Nov. 7, the fate of Christopher Taylor is now in the hands of the 12 Travis County residents selected three weeks ago to serve on the jury in what has been one of the most politically important trials in Austin’s history.

Taylor, an Austin Police Officer, stands accused of murdering Michael Ramos, a Black and Latino man, in a Southeast Austin parking lot more than three years ago. It is believed to be the first time in the city’s history that a police officer has faced trial for allegedly murdering someone in the line of duty.

In their final statements to the jury, attorneys representing the defense and the prosecution included appeals to jurors’ potential fears and their sense of moral justice that reflected, to some degree, the two poles in the political divide over police violence that widened in America throughout the summer of 2020.

Doug O’Connell, one of the two attorneys who defended Taylor at trial, argued that convicting Taylor would motivate police officers to conduct their sworn duty to protect and serve the public less proactively. “If you convict Chris on this evidence, in this case,” O’Connell said to the jury, “you can reasonably expect that officers will hesitate in the future.”

Rather than self-assigning to 911 calls where a gun is reported, as Taylor and other officers did with the call that prompted Taylor’s fatal encounter with Ramos, maybe they’ll wait to be assigned to those more dangerous calls. Maybe they’ll spend more time working on reports before moving on to the next call. “They’re going to drag their feet and why wouldn’t they,” O’Connell asked the jury, rhetorically, “if, on this evidence, you think Chris is guilty of murder?”

Gary Cobb, the special prosecutor brought in by Travis County District Attorney José Garza to help try the case, took a different tack – he appealed to the jury’s sense of justice. Cobb’s closing statement began with the story of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was murdered by a white supremacist in 1964. Juries in two different trials hung that year, failing to convict Evers’ killer, Byron De La Beckwith; 30 years later, however, he was finally convicted.

Cobb told jurors the long march toward justice for Evers was emblematic of the way Martin Luther King Jr. described the broader struggle for civil rights in America – that “the arc of the moral universe is long,” but that “it bends toward justice.” To render a not guilty verdict for Taylor would be to tell the Travis County community that it is not ready to continue bending toward justice, Cobb said, that it will continue to “value the life of Michael Ramos as this community has been taught to value the lives of [marginalized] people.”

A guilty verdict, though, would show the community’s commitment toward moving in the direction of justice, he argued. “At some point this community will have to understand that no matter how long it takes for that arc of the moral universe to bend toward justice,” Cobb said, “that we’re willing to be a part of that bending toward justice … and that the community will be better for it.”

Dexter Gilford and Ken Ervin, presenting to the jury for the prosecution and defense, respectively, also used their closing statements to reiterate the main thrust of each party’s argument. For the state, that included a focus on what video of the encounter shows: Ramos, in a Toyota Prius, attempting to drive away from officers as Taylor shoots and kills him, while the other responding officers – several of whom testified to not fearing for their lives during the encounter – hold their fire. This, Gilford argued, showed Taylor’s intention to kill Ramos despite any imminent threat to himself or other officers; facts which they believe constitute murder. “Michael Ramos was fleeing and he was never a lethal threat to anyone,” Gilford told the jury. “If anyone thought that he was, it’s because they made some terrible mistakes and choices.”

The defense again argued that the jury’s focus should be on the threat Taylor perceived, rather than the perception of his fellow officers. Once Ramos fell into the Prius after being shot with a lead pellet round, the threat level of the encounter increased drastically. In response, he takes aim down the optic of his rifle, and then, Ervin told jurors, “that is all he’s seeing, that’s all he’s experiencing.” When he eventually shot and killed Ramos, it was to stop what he perceived as a deadly threat confronting the officers standing beside him.

Jurors began deliberating over a verdict at 9am today, Nov. 8.

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