Daniel Willis cleared of murder charges in the 2014 death of Yvette Smith by visiting judge who chose jurors in Sandra Bland case
A former Texas police deputy on trial for killing an unarmed woman without warning immediately after she opened the front door of a friend’s house was found not guilty on Thursday.
Daniel Willis was cleared of murder by visiting district judge Albert McCaig during a retrial 30 miles east of Austin.
Yvette Smith was seemingly trying to act as a peacemaker during a dispute between two men that involved a gun. She called 911 about half an hour after midnight on 16 February 2014. When Bastrop County police arrived at the house, at least one of the men was in the front yard and the worst of the disturbance appeared over.
Willis, who is white, saw Smith, a black 47-year-old former caretaker, and ordered her to come outside. As she opened the door he shouted “police!” then fired within about three seconds. She died in the hospital after being shot twice by the deputy, who was using his personal AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
Judge McCaig usually works in Waller County, where the death of Sandra Bland last year in custody drew national attention. He helped choose grand jurors last year to analyze evidence related to Bland’s death.
In a lengthy statement before his ruling, the judge described Smith as a victim who was “a good person, a kind person and a gentle person trying to do the right thing” and apportioned part of the blame to the two men for fighting.
He asked Willis to stand and quoted an excerpt from a speech Theodore Roosevelt gave in 1910: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds …”
He then delivered the verdict, which was livestreamed by local news. A camera in the courtroom panned to Smith’s family in the front row of the gallery, who dissolved into tears. Two rushed out. A man yelled “Bullshit, that’s bullshit” and thumped the dividing bar. He was ushered out of the room by a member of the public.
The case raised broad issues about police accountability and localised questions about recruiting standards and the conduct of the sheriff’s department.
The sheriff’s initial media release had wrongly claimed that Smith was armed and failed to comply with orders once on the front porch. It read: “After the subjects disregarded all commands to come out, a woman came to the doorway of the residence displaying a firearm. The woman disregarded the deputy’s commands, which resulted in shots being fired by the Bastrop County Deputy and the woman being shot.”
Willis had worked as a deputy in Bastrop for less than a year before the killing. He was fired after being charged with murder. He was previously employed as a jailer in the Austin area. In a 2012 evaluation a supervisor wrote that he needed “more development in handling explosive situations and the utilization of common sense”.
Willis had been rejected for patrol officer jobs by other law enforcement agencies, including the Austin police department, where he failed the psychological exam. Less than two weeks after the shooting and with an investigation ongoing, Terry Pickering, the Bastrop sheriff, told the Austin American-Statesman that some of his staff had tampered with Willis’s training records in order to fix mistakes by getting them properly signed.
Willis claimed in his defence that he thought he saw a gun. Audio from the scene depicts Willis shouting “police!” then immediately firing. “What was she pointing at me?” he asks. “What did she have in her hand?”
A mistrial was declared last September in the original trial when a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict and deadlocked at 8-4 in favour of guilty. Willis agreed to waive his right to a jury for the retrial. Last year the county settled a civil lawsuit brought by Smith’s family for a reported $1.2m.
In the prosecution’s closing argument on Thursday, special prosecutor Forrest Sanderson said that the state opted for a murder charge because “his decision to shoot and kill Yvette Smith was intentional and knowing”. He said that Willis indicated no remorse and quoted him telling an investigator that “‘she fell like lead’. As if he’s in a video game.”
Sanderson said that though the scene was dark and Willis suffers from poor night vision and was 40ft from Smith, he did not put on his tactical glasses. Protected by a bulletproof vest and using his SUV as cover, Sanderson said, “he had plenty of time to respond by taking a careful look, taking a second look, taking a third look if he needed to. He could have given commands to drop the gun, moved around, observed that situation as long as he needed to before ending Yvette Smith’s life.”
Sanderson claimed Willis was “narrating fictitious events in his own mind”, later describing Smith as wide-eyed, catatonic and bringing a gun into a shooting position – despite the darkness, distance and almost instant decision to fire his weapon.
In the defence’s closing argument, attorney Robert McCabe said that Willis was “not some out of control Robocop” and was simply responding to “a situation that was created in their home”.
He faulted a dispatcher for failing to relay to Willis that a shotgun had been laid down on a table, while crediting his client for aiming a mere two bullets into Smith’s “centre mass” when he was carrying an extra magazine and might have fired 28 times. “He’s not out of control. Those are controlled actions,” McCabe said.
Defence attorney Kristen Jernigan said that Willis was expecting to see a gun based on what he was told by the 911 dispatcher, had a reasonable expectation of danger so was legally allowed to protect himself, was entering a volatile situation and was in fear of his life when he shot Smith. “Why does everybody else get to be scared except Daniel Willis?” she said. “When you are a police officer and you encounter apparent danger you are trained to eliminate that threat.”
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