Fault Lines
9 November 2018

Yvette Smith’s Murder Should Be News But It’s Not

Sept. 15, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — In February of 2014, the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office answered a disturbance call at Yvette Smith’s home. Within hours, Yvette was dead, shot twice by a deputy sheriff’s rifle as she opened her door. Yvette was African-American and the deputy, Daniel Willis is white.

Bastrop County is just southeast of Austin, between that city and LaGrange, Texas, the town made famous by ZZ Top and the Chicken Ranch. The population of the entire county is under 75,000, and it is predominately a rural area with a National Guard training facility* in the middle of the county. Yvette lived on what used to be part of Camp Swift on Zimmerman Road. It is a very conservative area, where the population overwhelmingly supports law enforcement and criminal justice.

On Monday, jury selection began in the murder trial of Willis. He is the first peace officer indicted for murder in over a decade in Bastrop County, and probably much longer. Over 400 potential jurors were summoned and 118 actually showed up. The potential jurors were questioned on everything from the #BlackLivesMatter movement to their knowledge of the case. Eventually, after voir dire, six men and six women (with two women alternates) were selected and sworn in.

This will be an interesting trial, and one that so far has escaped major media attention. The sheriff’s office first put out a press statement that Yvette was armed and disobeyed deputy’s orders — and almost immediately retracted that statement, without prompting or outside disclosure. They then stated that they could not confirm if she was armed, or if she even disobeyed any commands.

Willis had been a deputy for about a year. He had previously worked as a jailer for Travis County for six or seven years, and had been turned down when he tried to get Travis County to hire him as a deputy. The Austin Police Department also turned him down. Willis quit in 2013, sometime after his performance evaluation said that “more development in handling explosive situations” and “utilization of common sense.”

The civil case for wrongful death has already been settled by Bastrop County for $1.22 million, which works out to approximately $16.50 for each resident of the county. The sheriff also had to deal with two of his supervisors altering Willis’s training records after the shooting. Lieutenant Joey Dzienowski was suspended without pay for six weeks (240 hours) and demoted to patrol deputy. Sergeant David Repka was suspended for four days (32 hours) and was also demoted to deputy.

The case was investigated by the Texas Rangers† and is being prosecuted by a special prosecutor instead of the District Attorney. There was no real hesitation in the matter, as the grand jury indictment for first degree murder was handed down in June 2014, four months after the shooting. As soon as Willis was indicted, he was fired.

This is an example of how these issues are supposed to be handled, regardless of the outcome. You see, for the point of this whole matter is not whether Daniel Willis is convicted or acquitted of murder, but of the entire process used in resolving the matter.

You have a law enforcement officer involved in a shooting and in a person’s death. So the first thing that the sheriff did was bring in the Rangers to handle the criminal investigation. It is critical that an outside agency, and preferably a state police agency, investigate any officer-involved shooting.

The second thing that happened is that a special prosecutor was appointed, to eliminate any potential conflict by the District Attorney’s office. Here, the county went to an experienced retired felony prosecutor who is now a criminal defense attorney in the area. Again, it is critical that an outside attorney prosecute the case, for transparency’s sake if nothing else.

And when the sheriff heard of action to conceivably cover up omissions by that agency in the training of Willis, he immediately took swift and firm action. I don’t know about y’all, but if I lost six weeks pay and was demoted three pay-grades, from lieutenant to deputy, it would get my attention. It would get the attention of everyone I worked with too, and make a clear example of what will not be tolerated.

And yet with all of this happening, all that could serve as an example on how to handle an officer-involved shooting correctly, there is no media attention other than from the nearby Austin market.

A black woman was shot by a white police officer and it wasn’t pushed under the rug or covered up. The officer is investigated, indicted, fired, and tried. But in today’s media world it is not news.

Sandra Bland is news. Michael Brown is news. Eric Garner is news.

Yvette Smith should be news but is not.

It is really a shame, because she could be the example we need to fix the rest of the system. But doing it right is not news.

* Disclosure: As a lot younger and thinner soldier many years (OK, decades) ago, I earned my parachute wings on a drop zone at Camp Swift.

†The Rangers of police legend, not the baseball team.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Wrongway
    17 September 2015 at 3:43 am - Reply
    • Greg Prickett
      25 September 2015 at 7:35 pm - Reply

      The Willis trial ended with a hung jury and a mistrial (8-4 for guilty).

      The prosecutor intends to retry the case.

  • Former Deputy Daniel Willis Acquitted in Second Trial
    8 April 2016 at 10:18 am - Reply

    […] 8, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — In September of last year, I wrote about the death of Yvette Smith in Bastrop County, Texas, and how well the Bastrop County Sheriff and the Bastrop County District […]