Parents of teen who died in police custody testify for change in law

2:46 p.m Tuesday, April 25, 2017 Local
Tamir Kalifa
Robert Dyer, whose 18-year-old son, Graham, was killed while in police custody in 2013, is overcome by emotion after seeing the recent American-Statesman story about his son’s death for the first time in a Capitol Extension meeting room, where he, his wife and others waited before attending a House Government Transparency and Operation hearing, where he testified Monday night.

The parents of a teen who died while in custody of the Mesquite Police Department stayed up late Monday night to share their son’s story with legislators in an effort to persuade them that a law allowing police departments to withhold investigative records from the public needs to be changed.

Kathy and Robert Dyers’ appearance before the Texas House Committee on Government Transparency and Operation came four days after the American-Statesman detailed their battle to get police records from the night their son Graham died while in the custody of Mesquite police.

House Bill 3234 would require law enforcement agencies to release investigative documents in cases in which the suspect died. The bill was left pending in the committee at the close of Monday’s hearing.

Had it been law four years ago, the measure would have spared the Dyer family years of heartache from not knowing what happened to Graham. The Dallas medical examiner determined the 18-year-old, who had been experiencing a bad reaction to LSD when police contacted him on a summer night in 2013, had died of accidental self-inflicted head injuries.

Yet police videos, which the family obtained from the FBI more than two years later only through persistence and a backdoor records strategy, appeared to show a different — and more troubling — story than what police told them had happened.

In one, Graham can be seen hurling himself around the back of the police cruiser; experts said officers should have taken more care to prevent him from hurting himself. In another, police can be seen shocking Graham with a Taser, apparently deliberately, in his testicles while he screams in pain. An officer can be heard saying in a low voice: “Mother[expletive], I’m going to kill you.”

And while police had told them Graham had needed to be placed in a restraint chair after being delivered to the jail, a video of the 5-foot-4-inch, 110-pound teenager shows him lying limply on the ground after being lifted out of the police car, seemingly struggling to raise his head. Still in the chair, he was placed in a jail cell for more than two hours before an ambulance was called. He died shortly afterward at a Dallas hospital.

Dallas County prosecutors said they were revisiting the case in light of the Statesman’s story. Michael Snipes, first assistant district attorney, said Graham’s in-custody death was investigated by the previous administration of former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, but that he wanted to learn more about the initial handling of the case. He declined additional comment.

RELATED: Texas police withheld records of their son’s death. Now they know why.

After waiting eight hours at the Capitol for the opportunity to speak, Kathy and Robert Dyer each took a turn telling committee members how their efforts to learn about Graham’s final hours had been thwarted by a state law allowing police to withhold files if a case doesn’t result in a conviction. The Mesquite Police Department had cited the law to deny the Dyers access to its files. Then-state Attorney General Greg Abbott upheld that decision.

Robert Dyer, a retired school teacher, said he initially was inclined to believe what the police said had happened. “At first you want to believe what a policeman tells you. You want to,” he said. “But they tortured him. And they covered it up. The city of Mesquite covered it up. The state of Texas covered it up.”

Several committee members seemed shaken by the couple’s story. “Thank you for coming,” Chairman Gary Elkins, R-Houston, said after Kathy Dyer finished telling her story. “I’m speechless.”

Rep. Tomas Uresti, D-San Antonio, offered to add his name to the bill.

The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said the tragedy the Dyers faced was precisely what his bill was intended to fix. “This isn’t a story I was aware of when we filed this bill,” he said. “But this is exactly what I was talking about.”

Others testified in favor of the proposed change to the Texas Public Information Act for other reasons. Dallas Morning News investigative editor Leslie Eaton said local authorities were using the existing law to withhold information about last summer’s attack on Dallas police.

After fatally shooting five officers on July 7, Micah Xavier Johnson was killed by a bomb attached to a police robot. So under the law in its current form, police don’t have to release their investigative files because he was never convicted of anything.

Although nine months have passed since the incident, “the Dallas Police Department has said almost nothing,” Eaton said. “These are important public issues. It’s not just idle curiosity.”