A chance meeting between two Austin musicians led to the violent death of one man and a felony conviction for the other.
James Miller, a former Austin police employee who took up the guitar in retirement, was found guilty Tuesday of criminally negligent homicide in the September 2015 stabbing of saxophonist Daniel Spencer. The two had gathered to drink and play music at Spencer’s home in East Austin when Miller testified that he pulled out a knife and twice stabbed Spencer before turning himself in to police.
Miller, who avoided convictions on more serious charges of murder and manslaughter, faces anywhere from two to 10 years in prison when the jury finalizes a sentence, which could come as early as Wednesday. Miller, 69, is eligible for probation because he has never previously been convicted of a felony.
Outside of court, Miller’s lead attorney, Charlie Baird, said he was “very startled and surprised” by the conviction, saying evidence and testimony in the case showed his client acted in self-defense.
Miller testified that Spencer became angry when Miller rejected his sexual advances and moved forward in an aggressive motion while brandishing a drinking glass. Miller, at 5 feet, 4 inches, was at least eight inches shorter than the 32-year-old Spencer.
“He had height advantage over me, arm length over me, youth over me,” Miller said. “I felt he was going to hurt me.”
Miller characterized Spencer as a “very talented” musician, who he asked to audition for a jazz band he was trying to put together. The night of the deadly encounter was the second time the two had gotten together after they met at an East Austin bar frequented by musicians. Miller testified that the two played for maybe six hours before he got up to leave and headed for his truck. He said he realized he forgot his reading glasses and returned to the house, only to encounter Spencer reaching in for a kiss.
“Hold it, I’m not a gay person,” Miller said he told Spencer.
Prosecutors said because Spencer did not touch Miller or state any intention to hurt him, the notion that he used deadly force for self-defense was “ludicrous.” Miller did not have “so much as a scratch on him,” prosecutor Matthew Foye said.
The verdict came down about an hour after state District Judge Brad Urrutia brought jurors into the courtroom and encouraged further deliberation after they signaled they had reached an impasse. They spent Monday night in a hotel at the behest of Baird, who had asked the court that they be sequestered to avoid exposure to media coverage or interactions with others who had studied up on the case. All told, the jury deliberated for 10 hours.
As the trial’s sentencing phase unfolded, Spencer’s mother took the stand and said her son was “very jovial” and “never even had Terrible Twos.”
Spencer’s boss, who employed him as a commercial advertising editor, said through tears Spencer would write thank-you notes after receiving pay raises and bonuses. Spencer, a University of Oklahoma graduate, had lived in Los Angeles before moving to Austin about a year before his death.