For the first time in five years, Travis County prosecutors failed to secure a conviction in a first-degree murder trial this week when Bryan Juarez was cleared of criminal wrongdoing in a 2015 deadly shooting in East Austin.
Juarez’s attorney, Steven Brand, says he argued with prosecutors for months that the evidence in the case didn’t merit the murder charge, and they should have reduced it because a jury could find Juarez acted in self-defense.
“I could have seen it going probation to manslaughter out of the gate,” Brand said.
Instead, a jury on Monday returned a not-guilty verdict in the death of gang member Christopher Burton. Prosecutors argued Juarez was in a drunken rage on Aug. 3 when he shot Burton after Burton called him a gay slur outside of an East Austin apartment complex. The defense told a different story, portraying Burton as a menace who on more than 50 instances berated Juarez, a college student who wore a suit and tie to work at the Capitol.
With no wiggle room to convict on a lesser charge, a jury of six men and six women was confronted with an all-or-nothing choice and deliberated for more than 10 hours over two days before freeing Juarez, 23, and sparing him a possible life sentence. This was the county’s first acquittal in a first-degree murder trial since August 2011, when Marvin Thruston was found not guilty in the shooting death of Michael Carmicle.
The loss comes at a particularly bad time for the prosecutors, who in less than three months will have a new boss. In a rebuke of the way things are currently done in the district attorney’s office, Democratic candidate Margaret Moore, the favorite in the DA race, says if she wins next month’s election she will have all prosecutors reapply for their jobs. Moore’s opponent, Republican Maura Phelan, also has hinted at big changes if she wins the office.
Assistant District Attorney Joshua Reno, who prosecuted Juarez’s trial, said that “although we ultimately disagree, we accept the verdict of the jury.” On Monday, a second prosecutor on the case, Rick Cofer, will transition to the county attorney’s office, a move that has been in the works for some time.
Jurors in the case declined to comment about their deliberations, but perhaps another factor in the acquittal was Judge Clifford Brown’s dismissing of a request from the defense to allow the jury to consider three lesser felony charges: manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Brown, who presides over the 147th District Court, said he refused those charges because “it was my belief that the evidence as presented did not give rise to the legal inclusion of any lesser included offenses in the jury charge.”
Buddy Meyer, director of the DA’s trial bureau, said he agrees with Brown’s decision because “there was no evidence of manslaughter.”
A manslaughter conviction carries up to 20 years in prison. In the buildup to the Oct. 3 trial, Juarez declined an offer for a 40-year sentence. Subsequent negotiations weren’t made public.
Evidence presented in the trial showed Juarez fired the gun six times, with four shots striking the victim.
Burton’s twin sister, Christina, said she disagrees with the verdict.
“Bryan shot my brother seven times over (a name). How’s that self-defense? The system is all kind of messed up,” she said.