BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — Seven months after a jury was unable to reach a verdict, former Bastrop Sheriff Deputy Daniel Willis was back on trial for murder in the shooting death of Yvette Smith. This time, the jury box was empty as Willis pleaded not guilty to the charge before Judge Albert McCaig Jr., the judge who will determine his guilt or innocence.
Willis opted for a bench trial this time around. The hung jury which failed to reach a consensus was split 8-4 in favor of convicting the deputy of murder. His attorney, Robert McCabe, said the judge will not wilt beneath influence or media pressure which has accompanied similar police shootings across the country.
“Vindictiveness, political prosecution, scapegoat. That is why we are here,” said McCabe.
On Feb. 16, 2014, Willis was responding to a disturbance call described as a fight between a father and son. The 911 caller said a gun was involved, but evidence in the first trial suggested the father and son had been separated and the gun had been sat down, posing no threat by the time Willis arrived. But Willis’ knowledge and perception of the situation when he arrived could be the determining factors when McCaig ultimately decides if the use of force meets the “objectively reasonable” standard.
“The Bastrop County Sheriff communications failed in this case. It was a huge issue in Daniel Willis not knowing the gun was put down,” said McCabe.
On day one of the retrial, much of the same evidence presented in the first trial was once again brought before the court. McCaig is also seeing the evidence for a second time, but this time with the knowledge it will be his verdict to make. Dashcam video from Willis’ patrol car and the taped interviews with him explaining his perception and recollection of the shooting were played for the court on Tuesday.
The dashcam video shows Willis arriving at the home and talking with Willie Thomas, the father involved in a fight with his son, in the front yard. After talking with Thomas for a few minutes, Willis receives a communication from dispatch which sends him hurrying back to his patrol car to grab a rifle. The video shows him taking cover behind a vehicle before yelling “Police” and firing two shots 1-2 seconds later. The shots hit Smith as she stood in the doorway of the home out of the dashcam’s view
Immediately after the shots were fired, Willis is heard shouting orders at others in the house. After a few minutes, an angry male voice is heard yelling at Willis that he made a mistake shooting Smith while the deputy contends he saw something in Smith’s hand.
“What was she pointing at me?” Willis is heard asking in the video. The people at the home angrily reply Smith had nothing in her hand and the gun was sitting on a table in the room.
During opening statements on Tuesday, special prosecutor Forrest Sanderson called the decision to shoot “a split-second, irrational decision” and said the case is about what the public should expect from law enforcement officers.
McCabe said making split-second decisions are exactly what the public asks officers to do to keep everyone safe.
“And then when they do so, they are judged like this. By inexperienced prosecutors, inexperienced investigators and malicious prosecution.”