The four-week murder trial of Austin Police Officer Christopher Taylor has ended in a mistrial after a Travis County jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict.
Despite 34 hours of deliberation across four days, the jury could not agree on whether Taylor’s fatal shooting of Michael Ramos in the parking lot of a Southeast Austin apartment complex three years ago constituted murder.
Word that the jury was hung spread early on Wednesday, Nov. 15, the fifth day of deliberations. By 10am, the fact of a mistrial was certain. In a final note to the court, the jury wrote that “we have examined all the evidence,” that “deliberation has stopped” and that “we cannot come to a unanimous decision without violating our individual conscience and honest beliefs.”
Just before 10:30am, members of Taylor’s family, as well as leaders within the Austin Police Association and rank-and-file members of the Austin Police Department, packed the courtroom pews behind the defendant’s table. Across the aisle sat a small number of Ramos’ family members, including his half-sister Clavita McMillan. Ramos’ mother, Brenda, was not present.
Finally, presiding Judge Dayna Blazey addressed the courtroom. “There is a manifest necessity that requires me to declare this case a mistrial.” Attorneys with the prosecution and defense agreed to grant a mistrial. Moments later, the courtroom began clearing while Taylor sat stoically in the same seat at the defense table where he has spent the last month.
One of Taylor’s defense attorneys, Doug O’Connell, confirmed reports that the jury was split 8-4, with the majority favoring a not guilty verdict. “We had a chance to visit with the jury,” O’Connell told reporters outside of the courtroom. “Two thirds of that jury panel were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Chris Taylor was innocent.”
To secure a guilty verdict, prosecutors had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Taylor’s use of force was not justified as self defense or defense of a third person. O’Connell said that it appeared jurors could not reach unanimity on whether or not Taylor acted in self defense and that it was unclear how much time they spent deliberating on the defense of third party justification.
While we don’t know how many jurors voted guilty and not guilty, we know that the divide was too large to overcome. On Nov. 9 and Nov. 13, the jury sent notes to the court stating that they were deadlocked and could not reach a unanimous verdict. After receiving the first note, Blazey summoned the jury into the courtroom to issue what is known as an “Allen charge” – basically a plea for the jury to continue discussing the evidence so that they can reach a unanimous verdict. “Any future jury will probably hear the same evidence which has been presented to you,” Blazey said. “The questions to be determined by that jury may be the same questions confronting you, and they may not find these questions any easier to decide than you have found them.”
Now, the case will head back to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, where D.A. José Garza will have to decide if he wants to retry Taylor – and commit more time, resources, and political capital to doing so – or dismiss the murder charge. Either decision will make waves, as the Ramos shooting and the criminal process that followed has been one of the most high-profile law enforcement stories in recent memory in Austin.
Garza did not address the possibility of another trial in a statement provided to media. “We are grateful for our community members who served in the jury for this case,” Garza said. “We respect the jurors’ decision and thank them for their service.”
Although a trial was held in Travis County, Ken Ervin – Taylor’s other defense attorney – left open the possibility of attempting to move the trial to a new avenue again (before the October trial started, Taylor’s made an unsuccessful change-of-venue motion). “We’ll have to evaluate our options and see if it’s right to try and move it again,” Ervin said.
O’Connell told reporters if Garza decides to retry the case, they stand ready to continue defending their client. “We’re not done fighting for Chris and we won’t be done until he gets a not guilty verdict.”
For Brenda Ramos, Michael’s mother, the mistrial represents the conclusion of another chapter in the painful saga that began when Taylor killed her son three and a half years ago. A saga that is still ongoing. “My heart continues to break,” Ramos said in a statement. “I am disappointed that the criminal justice system did not provide a resolution this time around but I am optimistic justice will eventually prevail.”
Throughout the trial, the fact that Taylor fatally shot Ramos was never in question. After a tense confrontation with officers, one of the officers, Mitchell Pieper, shot Ramos with a lead pellet round, causing Ramos to fall back into the Toyota Prius he was standing beside. Shortly after that, Ramos began driving to the right and away from officers in an apparent attempt to flee to Pleasant Valley, a thoroughfare to the north of the parking lot.
The case from prosecutors and defense attorneys revolved around how a reasonable person should have responded – one of the standards prosecutors are required to clear to prove murder – in the moments between when Ramos was hit with the lead pellet round and after he began driving away. The state argued that a reasonable person should have been able to see that Ramos intended to flee from officers and thus posed no imminent threat of violence. Taylor’s defense attorneys argued that Taylor’s decision to shoot was justified because he reasonably believed that Ramos posed a lethal threat to his fellow officers because he could have driven straight through them to reach Pleasant Valley.
The state’s case hinged on two key facts: video showing the Prius veering off to the right in the seconds before Taylor took the first of three shots (the second shot was fatal) with his AR-15. Prosecutors played video of this moment repeatedly throughout the trial, from a variety of perspectives, including from police cameras, bystanders recording on cell phones, and through a digital animation recreating the shooting. The other key fact for the prosecution was that none of the other officers on-scene took a shot, despite many of them being armed with lethal weapons. Some of the officers who were called to testify – including Benjamin Hart and Darrell Cantu-Harkless – said from the witness stand that in those moments they did not feel Ramos posed an imminent threat that warranted the use of deadly force.
For Taylor’s defense, the focus was not on what other officers perceived as threatening, but what Taylor perceived as a threat to either himself or his fellow officers. Through questioning of David Gilden, a UT-Austin professor who studies human perception, Taylor’s attorneys established for the jury that it was possible once Taylor began looking down his rifle’s optic scope to take aim at Ramos, he would have been aware of little else around him – like the Prius veering away from the officers Taylor said he needed to protect by deploying lethal force.
Another piece of compelling evidence offered by the defense was video taken from the vehicle dash camera from one of the officers on scene. The video shows some of the officers shuffling backward toward their patrol vehicles. Taylor’s defense argued they were attempting to take cover from the Prius, supporting their theory that Ramos posed a threat and that Taylor was justified in fatally shooting him.
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