An impending ruling on the lawfulness of a traffic stop will determine if federal prosecutors can present some of their strongest evidence in the trial of a man charged with shooting Travis County state District Judge Julie Kocurek.
Lawyers for Chimene Onyeri argued Thursday in federal court that law enforcement officials in Houston had no legal grounds to pull over a car in November 2015 in which Onyeri was suspected of being a passenger.
The traffic stop enabled investigators, who had an unrelated warrant for his arrest, to seize Onyeri’s phone. The investigators also had a search warrant for the phone and were able to unlock evidence they used to place him in Austin around the time that authorities say he and two other men ambushed Kocurek outside of her Tarrytown home, critically injuring her.
The Samsung phone associated with Onyeri was found broken into pieces in the car’s back seat, retired Austin police Detective Derek Israel testified.
Israel classified the information taken from the phone, which includes text message conversations with alleged accomplices, as “highly incriminating.”
Co-defendants Marcellus Burgin and Rasul Scott have pleaded guilty, leaving only Onyeri, 30, to stand trial on March 26. The charges for which Burgin and Scott pleaded are under a court-ordered seal. Neither has been sentenced.
Onyeri is charged with intent to commit capital murder. A 17-count indictment also accuses Onyeri of racketeering, mail fraud, identity theft and wire fraud.
The decision on the defense’s motion to suppress the cellphone records will be made by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, who said he’ll call lawyers on both sides once he reaches a conclusion. He hinted that the traffic stop appeared to be lawful based on testimony from a Houston police officer who said the driver of the Dodge Charger that Onyeri was traveling in had made an illegal turn. Authorities believe the driver was heading to Onyeri’s home, but turned off when he spotted agents in marked vehicles parked outside of the home.
Yeakel said he’d review his notes and make a decision soon.
As he was leaving court, Onyeri’s lawyer, Leonard Martinez, said that, regardless of Yeakel’s decision, “it’s going to be a difficult case.” The trial could take up to six weeks, Yeakel said.
Martinez said he’s not surprised Burgin and Scott pleaded guilty, adding, “We expected we’d be the only ones put to trial.”
Testimony from Israel, the retired police detective, revealed why investigators mistakenly dismissed a tip as false that could have prevented the attack.
Weeks before the shooting, an anonymous tipster informed the Travis County district attorney’s office that Onyeri had planned to kill the judge. The tipster was later revealed to be Onyeri’s girlfriend.
The tip was investigated but determined to be false, Israel testified.
“In retrospect, it was very credible,” he said.
Israel said the mistake was made because investigators believed Onyeri had not been in in Kocurek’s court since 2012. The theory behind the shooting was that Onyeri was concerned Kocurek would send him back to prison. It turned out the investigators with the district attorney’s office were incorrect, and that Onyeri had actually been in her court the month before.
In his testimony, Israel did not name the person who made the mistake.