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.
Did the Austin Police Department have its thumb on the scale when it participated in a criminal investigation into Austin Police Officer Christopher Taylor’s fatal shooting of Michael Ramos three years ago?
That question hung in the air during days four, five, and six of the trial against Taylor, who stands accused of murdering Ramos, as prosecutors questioned witnesses about the investigation into the shooting conducted by detectives within APD’s Special Investigations Unit, which is tasked with investigating officers accused of criminal conduct, alongside the Texas Rangers.
Prosecutors honed in on the special treatment afforded Taylor in the hours and days following the shooting – treatment that, APD personnel acknowledged, would not be afforded to a civilian suspected of shooting a person three times and killing them. Immediately following the shooting, Taylor was left alone in an APD patrol vehicle for an unspecified amount of time with his “peer support officer” – Sheldon “Scott” Askew, who also happens to be Taylor’s uncle and, at the time, was a sergeant at SIU.
That Taylor’s uncle held a supervisor rank within the department tasked with investigating police officers accused of crimes, and that he was one of the first people Taylor spoke with after killing Ramos, had not been disclosed prior to prosecutors revealing it at trial. “You gave [your] statement [to SIU] while sitting in the office of Mr. Taylor’s uncle,” Assistant District Attorney Rob Drummond on Oct. 26 asked Officer James Morgan, one of those who confronted Ramos alongside Taylor.
Taylor’s attorneys immediately objected. District Judge Dayna Blazey, who is presiding over the trial, sustained and later instructed jurors to disregard the question. Blazey ruled that jurors could be told about Taylor’s relation to Askew – who had been sitting through much of the trial alongside other members of Taylor’s family – but not that Askew worked at SIU. Prosecutors hope that the door remains open to revealing that fact to jurors and it may surface later in the trial.
During an evidentiary hearing during which the jury was excused, Assistant D.A. Holly Taylor (no relation to the defendant) said the state intended to present other evidence that Askew “maintained a supervisory role over other officers in SIU” as the investigation was unfolding, and that shortly after it concluded, he conducted the performance review for Daniel Mireles – the lead SIU detective assigned to the case.
Taylor’s defense counsel said at trial Askew was “walled off” from the investigation but APD did not respond to our questions about the nature of Askew’s recusal. Before that recusal could be instituted, however, Askew had a private conversation with his nephew. Mireles testified that when he arrived at the scene of the shooting, Taylor and Askew were sitting in the back of a patrol vehicle, alone, with the vehicle’s in-car camera turned off. No recording of the conversation exists. “That’s not the treatment a regular citizen in Travis County who just shot someone in the head would get,” Drummond told Blazey during the evidentiary hearing.
Two weeks after the shooting, Taylor was summoned to the SIU office to conduct an interview with detectives about the shooting. Typically, before officers are interviewed by SIU, they are permitted “two sleep cycles” and time to review video from the incident, with their defense counsel, before submitting to a verbal interview with detectives, also alongside counsel. Police officials have long defended the “two sleep cycles” and video review prior to interview – two privileges that are not given to civilian subjects of criminal investigations – as necessary to produce a more accurate recounting of events.
But the process played out differently in the Taylor investigation, prosecutors revealed to the jury. When Taylor arrived for an interview requested by SIU, he brought Doug O’Connell and Ken Ervin, the two attorneys representing him in trial now. O’Connell and Ervin asked Mireles to break department protocol and allow the two attorneys to view video of the shooting, without their client present.
After consultation with SIU leadership, the request was granted. From the witness stand, Mireles said he was “disappointed” with the decision, but that it was within their rights as defense attorneys to ask for special treatment for their client. O’Connell later said they didn’t want Taylor to watch the video before providing a statement because doing so could “corrupt someone’s memory…of a traumatic event.”
Mireles testified that the two defense attorneys were left alone to watch videos of the shooting “at least 30 minutes minimum” but that it “could have been longer.” When they were done, they asked to see more video, but Mireles denied that request; 10-20 minutes later, they handed the detective a typed statement from Taylor in lieu of having their client sit for an interview.
“Up to this point in your career at SIU,” Drummond asked Mireles, “had you ever deviated” from the unit’s standard procedure for suspect interviews? “That was the first time,” Mireles responded. “No,” it never happened again, “not while I was there,” Mireles answered in response to a follow-up question from Drummond.
The line of questioning prompted a striking concession from Ervin, who did not deny that SIU interview procedure was violated on behalf of his client. “Even if you felt disappointed,” Ervin asked during cross-examination of Mireles, “did you think our actions were consistent with zealous advocacy” of Taylor? “Wouldn’t you want the same for yourself,” Ervin continued, “even if that meant bending some procedures a little bit, but not breaking the law?
“Yes,” the detective responded.
The defense picked up its questioning of Mireles on Monday morning, with O’Connell asking the sergeant whether SIU’s investigation was influenced by the D.A.’s office. He also implied that Taylor fired his rifle to protect a mechanic who had been working on a car next to the Prius occupied by Ramos. The prosecution took up the question of the mechanic moments later on redirect, eliciting an admission from Mireles that threw doubt on Taylor’s statement to SIU. Mireles testified that Ramos drove away from the mechanic and, more to the point, away from the APD officers on the scene.
“That would be kind of a problem for him, fair to say?” the prosecutor asked. “I can say yes,” Mireles responded.
Reporter Brant Bingamon contributed to this report.
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.