- Eric Dexheimer American-Statesman Staff
In a last-ditch effort to pursue criminal charges against the Mesquite police officers who avoided accountability for the death of a teenager in their custody only because too much time had passed, representatives from the Dallas County district attorney’s office this week met with FBI agents to determine if federal laws might yet provide an avenue to justice.
Last week, the office of Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson said there was enough evidence against the police to charge them in Graham Dyer’s death. The 18-year-old was experiencing a bad reaction to LSD in August 2013 when Mesquite officers took him into custody. Dash camera videos obtained by his family, despite the city’s efforts to withhold them, showed police shocking Graham’s testicles with a Taser while he was handcuffed and also leaving him unrestrained to sustain fatal injuries hurling himself about the back of their cruiser while being taken to the jail.
Despite the apparent serious head injuries, Mesquite officials didn’t summon medical help until they observed Graham unresponsive in his cell — more than two hours later.
The incident came to the DA’s attention two months ago when the American-Statesman published an investigation about Mesquite thwarting the Dyer family’s attempts to obtain the records showing what happened to Graham the night he died. Yet by then, due to a 3-year state statute of limitations on criminally negligent homicide, Dallas prosecutors said the officers couldn’t be charged with the crime.
City officials said no officer was disciplined for his role in Graham’s death, and the case at the time was never presented to a Dallas County grand jury.
Prosecutors said it might not be too late, however, for federal criminal charges in the case. Michael Snipes, the Dallas first assistant district attorney, confirmed that he met with federal law enforcement agents earlier this week for about an hour to discuss whether the Mesquite officers could be charged under U.S. criminal civil rights statutes. The federal law has a five-year statute of limitations. Graham died Aug. 13, 2013.
Snipes said at the end of the meeting agents agreed to consult with attorneys from the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees federal prosecutions, to decide if a federal case could be made against the Mesquite police.
Craig Watkins, the district attorney during the period prosecutors would have originally reviewed the incident for evidence of a crime, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Wayne Larson, a spokesman for the city of Mesquite, declined to discuss the development.
An FBI spokeswoman, citing bureau policy, declined to comment but said the FBI maintained a website explaining the law generally.
The most likely federal law to be used would be a criminal civil rights statute known as a Chapter 242 or “color of law” violation, according to former federal prosecutors. The law, most often associated with cases involving minority victims, is perhaps best known for its use in police misconduct cases such as the infamous 1991 beating of Rodney King, an African-American taxi driver beaten by police after a high-speed chase.
Four Los Angeles police officers were charged under the federal statute after they were acquitted of state charges of using excessive force against King. While two of the officers were subsequently also cleared of the federal crimes, two others were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms.
Evidence of the Mesquite officers’ treatment of Graham came to light only after his parents, Kathy and Robert Dyer, were able to find a backdoor way to obtain dash camera videos of the night of his death, which Mesquite had fought to withhold from them. The images appeared to show that police had failed to properly restrain Graham in the back of the car; and at one point the police had pulled over and shocked him several times in his groin. One officer can be heard threatening to kill Graham.
The videos also seemingly contradicted official police reports of the incident, which stated that Graham had needed to be placed in a special restraint chair at the jail because he was so out of control. Yet the images of him being unloaded from the police car before being taken to a cell show Graham lying limp on the sallyport floor.
Richard Roper, a 20-year federal prosecutor who also served as the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas from 2004 to 2008, said he’d reviewed the tapes. “It’s bad,” he said. “The video certainly raises substantial questions.”
Still, he said that bringing federal charges against the Mesquite police would be difficult. To make a case the officers violated the statute, federal investigators would have to show the police knew they were placing Graham at a substantial risk of harm even as they were doing it. “It’s a big burden,” he said.
Another hurdle is that the FBI already looked at the case once before, when Kathy Dyer personally pleaded with the bureau in an early effort to help pry loose answers from Mesquite. “After a careful and thorough review of the complaint, we have determined that you have not alleged specific and credible violations of federal civil rights laws which would be successfully prosecuted and proven beyond a reasonable doubt in federal district court,” an agent wrote back in January 2015.
Despite the disappointing news, the FBI investigation provided the family with the opening to get the records they sought. The Dyers realized they could circumvent Mesquite officials by asking the federal bureau for the records it had reviewed in response to their complaint.
The videos the FBI eventually turned over to them formed the basis for a federal civil lawsuit against Mesquite. That case is pending and still in the early stages of litigation.