DA: Officers who shocked teenager committed crime — but can't be charged

6:30 p.m Thursday, June 22, 2017 Local
Graham Dyer died while in police custody in 2013 in North Texas. (Photo courtesy of the Dyer family)

The office of Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson said Thursday it had concluded some Mesquite police officers, who in August 2013 shocked 18-year-old Graham Dyer with a Taser on his testicles while he was handcuffed and allowed him to fatally injure himself in the back of their cruiser, had committed a crime.

But due to the expiration of the statute of limitations, the officers involved couldn’t be charged.

“If I could go back in time and have this case, it would be indicted,” said Michael Snipes, the first assistant district attorney. “We would have pursued criminally negligent homicide charges.”

According to state law, however, such charges cannot be brought more than three years after the incident, which came to the district attorney’s attention as the result of an American-Statesman investigation two months ago. And while there is no such limitation on the higher charge of manslaughter, Snipes said the officers’ behavior that contributed to Graham’s death didn’t reach the level of a knowing disregard for his life.

READ: Texas police withheld records of their son’s death. Now they know why.

Graham, a skinny skateboarding enthusiast, died after Mesquite police took him into custody on a summer night while he was having a bad LSD trip. The medical examiner called his death an accident, concluding he’d died of self-inflicted injuries sustained by hurling himself around the backseat of the police car on the way to the jail.

Yet police videos later obtained by his parents — with great difficulty and despite the city’s refusal to turn them over — appeared to show that Mesquite police had failed to properly restrain Graham in the back of the car. They also revealed the officers had pulled over and shocked the teenager with a Taser, including several times in his groin. One officer threatened to kill Graham.

The videos also seemed to contradict official police reports of the incident, which stated that Graham had needed to be placed in a special restraint chair at the jail because he was so out of control. Yet the videos of him being unloaded from the police car before being taken to a cell show Graham lying limp on the sally-port floor. It was more than two hours later, when officers found him unresponsive, that medics were summoned to treat him.

The case was never presented to a grand jury, and a city spokesman has said none of the police officers involved was disciplined.

Graham’s parents, Kathy and Robert Dyer, said they met with prosecutors for three hours Thursday. Snipes said his office’s investigation included reviewing videos of Graham’s arrest, police reports and affidavits, and it resulted in a 12-page internal report that was presented to the district attorney.

Kathy said she was disappointed the Mesquite officers wouldn’t be held to account for her youngest son’s death. “We’re pretty emotional, but it’s what we expected,” she said. “We feel like (prosecutors) did a pretty thorough investigation.”

Wayne Larson, a spokesman for the city of Mesquite, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call or email.

The Statesman described in April the Dyer family’s long and frustrating battle to obtain the damning police records. Mesquite was able to withhold them because of a Texas law that says law enforcement agencies don’t have to turn over their records if a defendant isn’t convicted of a crime. Graham was charged with assault for allegedly biting an officer in the finger while being arrested, but, he was never convicted because he died before his case could be heard.

STATESMAN INVESTIGATES: A Question of Restraint: How 290 people died in police custody

After being repeatedly rebuffed in their request for the Mesquite Police Department’s records from the night Graham died, Kathy and Robert Dyer asked the FBI to investigate. Although the federal agency said it was unable to bring a civil rights case, the Dyers realized they could circumvent Mesquite officials by asking the bureau for the records it had reviewed.

The family used the videos the FBI eventually turned over to them as the basis for a federal civil lawsuit against Mesquite. That case is pending and still in the early stages of litigation.

The Dyers’ story spurred a flurry of responses. In addition to the district attorney’s promise to review Mesquite’s treatment of Graham on the night of his death, Kathy and Robert testified in front of legislators in support of a bill that could help other families in their position.

Sponsored by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, House Bill 3234 would have compelled law enforcement agencies to release their investigative records if, like Graham, the suspect had died, or, if not, gave his consent to their release. The couple’s emotional testimony appeared to move several of the lawmakers on the state House Committee on Government Transparency and Operation.

While the proposed law made it out of the committee — a small victory in a committee that scuttled most of its open government bills — it later died.

In its multistory investigation into people who died in the custody of law enforcement officers, the Statesman noted a patchwork of local policies regarding how such incidents are reported to prosecutors, who in turn had a variety of policies about presenting cases to grand juries.

The Travis County medical examiner determined the death of Willie Ray Banks, who in December 2011 was shocked with a Taser for more than 3 minutes continuously and restrained for a lengthy time by Granite Shoals and Burnet County officers, was a homicide. Yet the case wasn’t presented to a grand jury until the Statesman inquired about it five years later — also too late for criminal charges to be brought against the officers.

After 23-year-old Thomas Klessig, a former high school wrestling champion with mental health issues, died of “mechanical compression” while being restrained by University Park police, that department changed its policy. Prior to that the agency determined on a case-by-case basis which incidents needed district attorney involvement. After Klessig’s death, also found to be a homicide, the suburban Dallas department notifies local prosecutors whenever a person dies in officers’ custody after a use of force.

The completion of the Dallas district attorney’s review means the Dyers’ lawsuit is their sole remaining hope to hold police accountable in Graham’s death. Their Fort Worth attorney, Susan Hutchison, predicted a long legal road, but vowed to see it through.

“We are going to fight to the end for civil liability,” she said.

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