BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — A visiting judge from Waller County found former Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office deputy Daniel Willis not guilty of murder for shooting and killing 47-year-old Yvette Smith in February 2014.
Judge Albert McCaig made brief comments about the difficulty of the situation that resulted in Smith’s death and the decision on whether Willis acted within the “objectively reasonable” standard for lethal force.
“Regardless of the decision I make here today, there will be a lot of commentary made about my decision,” said McCaig. He then recited a Theodore Roosevelt quote before declaring Willis not guilty. Moments after the verdict, one of Smith’s family members got up out of his seat and began screaming, “That’s b——t.” Others ran from the courtroom crying. One woman collapsed to her knees just outside the courthouse.
During his remarks, McCaig eluded to the actions of Willie and Chris Thomas. In the 911 call, a woman indicated the two men were fighting and a gun was involved. McCaig said if not for the actions of those two men, there would have been a different outcome to the situation that resulted in Smith’s death. Defense attorney Robert McCabe echoed that sentiment.
“Daniel Willis was not driving around looking for trouble. This is two men fighting with weapons in a violent encounter when 911 was called,” said McCabe. “Had they not acted like fools, Daniel Willis would not have been called.”
Last year, a mistrial occurred when jurors could not reach a unanimous decision, but they were split 8-4 in favor of finding Willis guilty. Prior to the verdict, Judge McCaig said he does not answer to political correctness, the media, or politicians. Instead, he said he ruled based on the law. Robert McCabe thinks that may have been the contrast in the judge’s findings compared to the jury
“Jurors can be swayed by experience, emotions, local citizens. They are swayed by things they hear and see.”
McCabe said Willis has not discussed his future, but said he would not seek to regain his job with Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office. Instead, he said Willis would spend some time with his family and put the nightmare of the last two years behind him.
“He has been a political scapegoat for Bastrop County for the last two years and he is ready to move on with his life.”
During closing arguments, the state and special prosecutor Forrest Sanderson said although police work is a noble profession, every profession has bad apples and things that need to be corrected.
“[Willis] had plenty of cover and time to safely evaluate the situation,” said Sanderson. The prosecution argued Willis’ version of the events and the actions he took that night were “fictitious events in his own mind” and do not fit the reasonably objective standard for self-defense and use of lethal of force.”
The defense countered by saying Willis was entering a dangerous situation, one where three people called 911 requesting the help of a deputy. Though Yvette Smith was not armed, defense attorney Robert McCabe argued dashcam video shows Willis ducking and taking cover, actions consistent with having a gun pointed at you. Willis has said he saw something shiny in Yvette Smith’s hands and the initial call to dispatch said there was a fight involving a gun at the home.
“The state wants to make this entire case about 3.47 seconds of video tape. The court must examine all the facts and circumstances,” said McCabe. “Action always beats reaction and if you wait, you die.”
On Feb. 16, 2014, Willis was responding to a fight between two men. When he arrived to the house, authorities say he shot Smith twice when she walked onto the porch. The Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office originally claimed Smith was armed, but later said she had no weapons on her. Four months later, Willis was charged with murder and fired from the force.
The first trial was declared a mistrial because of a hung jury, although the jurors did reveal they were split 8-4 in favor of guilty. Willis opted for a bench trial this time around. Judge McCaig Jr. will determine his guilt or innocence.
The family of Yvette Smith settled a lawsuit against Bastrop County last April for $1.2 million. The lawsuit claimed the county was negligent in hiring Willis.
An investigation following the shooting found that supervisors within the department had altered Willis’ training records. A lieutenant and sergeant were both suspended and demoted for those changes.Tweets by @chrissadeghi