The monumental trial of Austin Police officer Christopher Taylor, accused of murdering Michael Ramos on-duty in 2020, got off to a rocky start today.
In an unusual and potentially unconstitutional move, the public and press were denied entrance to Travis County District Judge Dayna Blazey’s courtroom during jury selection today, May 22. After a lunch break and conferring with prosecutors and defense attorneys, Blazey decided to dismiss the entire pool of potential jurors early and bring in a fresh batch tomorrow, May 23.
Jury selection in the high-profile trial began at 9:15am, but even before the process began, members of the public interested in observing the proceedings – including this reporter – were denied entrance into the courtroom.
This case is one of the most significant to come through Travis County in years and is likely to be of immense public interest. Ramos, a Black and Latino man, was killed by Taylor on April 24, 2020 in a Southeast Austin parking lot. Taylor and several other Austin Police Department officers responded to a 911 call indicating that Ramos was conducting a drug deal in his car, a Toyota Prius, and that he had a gun.
When officers arrived at the scene, they confronted Ramos. Bodycam video shows officers shouting commands at Ramos, who appears bewildered by the swarm of officers facing him with guns drawn. He complies with commands from officers demanding he raise his hands and lift his shirt. Tensions continue to escalate and, eventually, APD Officer Mitchell Pieper shoots and hits Ramos with a lead-pellet bag. Ramos then dives into his vehicle. As he begins to slowly drive away from the officers, Taylor shoots Ramos three times, killing him.
The fatal shooting was a flashpoint in Austin, becoming a galvanizing moment – along with the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis one month later – that propelled people into the street to demonstrate against police violence. Nearly one year after the shooting, March 10, a Travis County Grand Jury indicted Taylor on a murder charge for killing Ramos. Six months later, Taylor was indicted on a second murder charge for the 2019 on-duty fatal shooting of Dr. Mauris DeSilva, who was believed to be undergoing a mental health crisis when he was shot and killed.
That a trial with such intense public interest would start with courtroom doors quite literally locked came as a surprise to all who arrived to spectate. Denying public access to trials, even during the jury selection phase, can have severe ramifications on criminal cases. In 2012, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals – the highest criminal court in the state – ordered a new trial for a defendant because the judge in the case improperly closed the court during jury selection.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a public trial and in a 2010 case, the Supreme Court of the United States held that this applies to the jury selection phase of trials. In a 1984 case, SCOTUS held that the First Amendment guaranteed public access to jury selection, known as voir dire proceedings (questioning of potential jurors), except if the court identified a compelling and unavoidable threat to the fairness of the trial as a result of making it public.
If such a threat existed today, Blazey, who was elected to Travis County’s 167th Criminal District Court in 2020 and is presiding over the Taylor trial, did not clearly articulate what that threat may be. On Friday, May 19, as the Chronicle was preparing to cover the historic trial – believed to be the first time an Austin Police officer faces a murder charge for an on-duty killing – I emailed the court to ask about access and device usage during the trial. “After the jury selection is complete and start of evidence is to begin you will be allowed to set up in the designated area,” a bailiff responded. Unsure if that meant the press would be barred from accessing the courtroom during jury selection, I followed up to clarify.
“No media will be allowed into the courtroom during the jury selection,” the bailiff responded. “There is very limited room in the courtroom for anyone other than the direct parties involved.”
Monday morning, Andrew Salinas, a criminal defense attorney working in Travis County with the Peck Law Group, was one of the people who was denied entrance into the courtroom. He was at the courthouse tending to business in another court when he made his way to the 167th Court, located on the Eighth floor Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, to observe the voir dire proceedings because he was interested in the facts of the case.
He attempted to enter the courtroom when a bailiff posted outside stopped him. “He told me that due to seating limits, I could not enter the court,” Salinas told the Chronicle. “This statement was made to me before the prospective jurors had entered the courtroom.”
Rebecca Webber and Laura Goettsche, the two attorneys representing Michael Ramos’ mother, Brenda, in the civil lawsuit brought against the City of Austin over Taylor killing her son, were also at the courthouse and had been denied entrance to the courtroom. The bailiff also told Webber and Goettsche that they could not enter because there was no room.
About an hour later, I arrived at the courthouse while jury selection was underway. I was also denied entrance to the courtroom, with the bailiff simply telling me that “the judge said no.”
For the next three hours after we were denied entrance to the courtroom, Webber, Goettsche, and myself waited while jury selection proceeded behind a locked door. When a bailiff would occasionally exit the rear doors of the courtroom, one of us would ask if we could be admitted. The answer was always no, until about 1:30pm, after several potential jurors had already been dismissed, the bailiff told Webber that she and Goettsche would be allowed into the courtroom – but they wouldn’t be able to sit.
At around 1:45pm, with jury selection set to resume at 2pm and minutes after a Chronicle editor emailed a court administrator to inquire about the “very unusual” decision, the bailiff told me I could enter the courtroom under the same conditions – standing room only, no cell phone usage at all. When we were finally let in, it was to hear Blazey announce that all remaining potential jurors would be dismissed and a new batch would be brought in the next day.
Dismissing jurors was “the safest course of action,” Blazey said, addressing the remaining potential jurors, because of the potential for a Constitutional rights violation. She was not aware that the backdoor to the courtroom was locked, preventing members of the public from entering, she continued. “The courtroom should be accessible to the general public,” Blazey said, “and to ensure all sides receive a fair trial, we are going to release you from jury duty today.”
In response to the puzzling situation that unfolded at the courthouse, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office released the following statement. “It is essential to our criminal justice system that this case will be treated like any other criminal case,” a spokesperson for the D.A. said. “We are hopeful that the court’s eventual decision to allow the public to observe the proceedings will put us on that track.”
Doug O’Connell and Ken Ervin, who are representing Taylor (and other APD officers under indictment by the D.A. for allegedly assaulting protestors during the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations), also responded to the events in the first day of the trial. “We believe the courtroom’s doors becoming locked this morning was inadvertent,” Ervin said. “Public access to a jury trial is generally protected by the Constitution and neither the State nor the defense requested any closure.”
Jury selection is set to begin anew Tuesday, May 23, in a bigger courtroom on the first floor of the courthouse.
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