After 21-year-old Trelin Reed was fatally ambushed outside of a North Austin convenience store in December 2016, homicide detectives looked at his social media history and arrested a man who had agreed to fight Reed the night of the shooting.
But the case became muddled last month at trial when the attorney for defendant Jabari Mitchell criticized Austin police investigators for not pursuing other potential suspects. After weighing the evidence for more than 13 hours, a jury returned a not-guilty verdict June 13 and cleared Mitchell of murder and all other charges.
The acquittal was the third in murder trials so far this year, the most since 2009, when Travis County jurors acquitted three such suspects over a 12-month period, according to a 10-year analysis by the American-Statesman. It is difficult to draw firm conclusions from such a small number of cases, but the string of failed convictions nevertheless has prompted law enforcement, prosecutors and court house observers to take note.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore took office in January 2017 and has seen four murder acquittals during her tenure. Previously, a Travis County jury found a murder suspect not guilty just once since 2011.
Her prosecutors have dismissed charges in 12 murder cases and have secured convictions in 13 murder trials. The office’s conviction rate under Moore is 68 percent — just under what the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports as the national average of 70 percent.
“I don’t think these results are out of line with any previous experience with this office,” Moore said. “But I do think it’s our job to study the results of these trials.”
Court watchers attribute the defeats to the departure of experienced trial attorneys who were squeezed out during the transition to Moore’s regime, as well as skepticism among jurors who have been exposed to reports about murder convictions getting overturned on appeal. Others have written off the slump as a possible statistical anomaly that is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.
The acquittals — all cases handled by the Austin Police Department — have prompted conversations about improving communication between Austin homicide detectives and Travis County prosecutors. After Mitchell’s trial, leadership from both agencies met at the request of the Police Department and decided the DA’s office would assign a prosecutor to the scene of every homicide, not just some of them. That arrangement already had been in place for homicide cases handled by the sheriff’s office.
Moore said her office risks more trial losses than before, because she has encouraged her prosecutors to present more cases to juries rather than accepting plea agreements. Moore’s prosecutors took 13 murder cases to trial in 2017. By comparison, former District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s office took five murder cases to trial in 2015 and nine in 2016.
Though risky, taking cases to trial is important, Moore said, because it can provide a litmus test into how severely members of the community think a crime should be penalized.
Since the Mitchell trial, Moore’s staff has given post-trial questionnaires to jurors to get feedback. Their opinions will give prosecutors a better understanding of the evidence jurors consider to be most influential to their verdict, Moore said.
“They want to know why you didn’t test this, why you didn’t follow up on this lead,” she said. “Things that a seasoned detective may not consider to be a good use of their time. But when you go into the courtroom and everything’s put under a microscope, it’s hard to answer the question why you didn’t do those things. To me, jurors today come with a bias about what information they think should be given to them. Maybe we need to explore that more thoroughly than what’s the burden of proof.”
Scissors not cited
A Travis County jury returned a not-guilty verdict in the murder trial against Melvin Stephens on June 8. Stephens said he fired his gun in self-defense after 22-year-old Dedrick Earl ran toward him up a flight of steps following an argument at a North Austin apartment complex. Stephens said he believed Earl had a weapon but said he did not see it.
Investigators later found scissors on the steps that Stephens’ lawyer argued Earl was carrying. Police never mentioned the scissors in a four-page arrest affidavit. There also was no mention of them in a January 2017 grand jury proceeding that led to an indictment and allowed the case to proceed. Investigators said they did not order that the scissors be tested for DNA. Stephens’ lawyer later had them tested with the approval of prosecutors, and blood found on them was Earl’s.
However, Earl’s mother, Diana, who declined to give her last name for this story, said she believes the trial testimony from a witness who said Stephens invited her son to come up the steps to fight.
“All I can say is they allowed a killer to go free,” she said.
Joe Chacon, an assistant police chief who supervises the homicide division, said the Police Department is working to ensure that detectives are building the best cases possible. Officials are making sure the most seasoned investigators are working with those less experienced. He said he also supports increasing collaboration between police and prosecutors in the earliest hours of a death investigation.
“Any time you put in a lot of work on a case and you end up with lesser charges or the charges being vacated, there is going to be some degree of discouragement,” Chacon said. “But we have to look at these as learning opportunities that in the end is going to make us better as investigators and more accountable to the public.”
In January, Zachary Payne testified his life was in danger when he fatally shot Alfred Matthews in East Austin after an altercation over Payne’s stolen jewelry.
Payne told the jury he thought he was going to be shot when Matthews, 28, told another man to “pop” him. Payne testified he pulled his gun when the man reached into his pocket and started to pull out something that resembled a weapon. No evidence came out in trial that either of the other men had a gun or any other weapon. However, the jury believed Payne and returned not-guilty verdicts for murder and all other charges.
Matthews’ father, Alfred Matthews Sr., said prosecutors failed to challenge Payne on portions of his testimony.
“Justice wasn’t served, and I’ll take that to my grave,” Matthews said. “Letting a guy out for shooting someone in the back, whether that was my son or somebody else, I don’t think that’s justice.”
Other losses for DA’s office
Other recent trials over violent deaths have ended with juries siding against the district attorney’s office.
• In April, James Miller was convicted of criminally negligent homicide — but acquitted of murder — for the fatal stabbing of Daniel Spencer, a 32-year-old film editor. Miller said Spencer became violent when Miller rejected Spencer’s sexual advances after a night of drinking and playing music. Miller, 69, was given six months in jail, followed by a term of probation. Spencer’s friends dispute Miller’s account, insisting Spencer was heterosexual.
• In April, a judge declared a mistrial when a single juror refused to join the 11 others who wanted to return a guilty verdict against Shawn Gant-Benalcazar, who had confessed to police that he killed choir director Kathy Blair during a burglary of her home. In court, Gant-Benalcazar recanted his confession, saying he was high on Valium when he confessed and had been coerced by police. Gant-Benalcazar remains jailed on a capital murder charge and is scheduled to be re-tried in October. In May, his co-defendant, Timothy Parlin, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of Blair and couple Billie and Sidney Shelton.
• In May, Spencer Carlton was found not guilty of criminally negligent homicide for a shove that killed Jerry Don Summers outside of a West Sixth Street bar. Summers was accused by Carlton’s wife and another bar patron of unwanted touching. Lawyers for both sides agreed to bypass a jury and present the case to state District Judge David Wahlberg, who determined Carlton could not have predicted Summers might have died from the shove.
Yet in the biggest murder trial of the year, Moore’s office was victorious, securing a capital murder conviction against Meechaiel Criner for the strangulation and sexual assault of University of Texas student Haruka Weiser. Criner, who was 17 at the time of the April 2016 campus attack, was given an automatic life sentence with the possibility of parole in 40 years.
Four other defendants who have gone to trial this year on charges of murder or capital murder have been convicted of the highest charge, with their prison sentences coming in at 88 years, 38 years, life and 99 years.
The prosecution team in Criner’s trial, led by trial division director Guillermo Gonzalez, overcame a decision by Judge Wahlberg to exclude forensic evidence that possibly showed Criner’s DNA on Weiser’s thigh.
Gonzalez was assisted by prosecutors Victoria Winkeler and Rickey Jones.
“I think I’ve got good lawyers,” Moore said. “I think they work very, very hard working these cases up. I do believe that we are on a really good path with the law enforcement agencies working together early on.”
By the numbers …
|Year||Murder cases disposed||Full acquittals||Found guilty of lesser charge||Trial murder convictions|
|2018 through July 26||19||3||1||5|
*A murder defendant was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2010, 2013 and 2014.