A Travis County jury acquitted an Austin man of murder late Friday, determining that Zachary Payne had killed Alfred Matthews in self-defense. After nine hours of deliberations, the jury also found Payne not guilty of two aggravated assault charges Payne faced in the July 2016 shooting.
Payne testified during his trial, saying he was trying to retrieve a stolen bracelet when he confronted a group of people at Park Plaza apartments in East Austin, and that he pulled out his gun and began shooting only after his life was threatened.
If convicted, Payne would have faced a possible sentence of life in prison.
“It was a very difficult case,” said Ariel Payan, Payne’s defense attorney. “Very difficult to hear all that evidence and see what happened. I think the law was followed by the jury. I think that was a very noble thing they did by acquitting him.”
The theft that led to Matthews’ slaying happened two days before the shooting, on Payne’s 21st birthday. Payne told the jury he fell asleep in his ex-girlfriend’s car after a party and woke up on East Riverside Drive with $140, a necklace and the bracelet missing.
Payne testified that he wasn’t too concerned about the money or the necklace, but that he wanted the bracelet back because it was a gift from his aunt. He had reported the theft to Austin police and had incessantly tried to contact his ex-girlfriend, Marione McCain, with some 200 calls and 80 text messages, because he believed she had taken the items. Payne was eventually told he could have the bracelet back but that he’d have to get it at the apartments where the shooting later occurred.
Payne said he was scared after receiving three threatening phone calls the night before from two unidentified men.
He got the bracelet back, but the fatal confrontation started after that.
A man who was at the apartment complex, Breaun Justice, testified that he was upset and wanted to fight Payne because Payne had gone to Justice’s grandmother’s house the day before looking for the bracelet. Justice said he felt his family had been disrespected and said he removed his shirt to fight.
Payne told the jury he believed Matthews, 28, and Justice were the men who had threatened him over the phone, and that he thought he was going to be shot when Matthews encouraged Justice to “pop” him.
Payne testified that he pulled the gun because Justice reached into his pocket and started to pull out something that resembled a weapon. No evidence came out in trial that Justice had a gun or any other weapon.
Payne fired and struck Matthews twice, first in the arm and then in the back. He missed Justice and McCain, but was charged with aggravated assault for the attempted shooting.
Defense attorney Payan said he thinks the testimony of witnesses to the shooting was the deciding factor in the case.
“They told the jury that they essentially were looking for him and they were going to beat him up, they were going to attack him, for going over to their grandmother’s house the night before,” Payan said. “It was disturbing to hear that. I think the jury found it to be disturbing.”