Sitting in the front row of a federal courtroom, Travis County District Judge Julie Kocurek bent over and placed her head in both of her hands.
Her son, Will, leaned in and placed his hand on her back as U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel said the word “guilty” 17 times – once for every charge Chimene Onyeri faced.
Onyeri admitted to shooting Kocurek outside of her Austin home on Nov. 6, 2015, but claimed he never intended to kill, or even injure anyone.
“Quit saying I shot the judge. The judge was shot,” Onyeri, 30, told prosecutors Tuesday during the 17 days of testimony. “I didn’t know she was in the car.”
After about four hours of deliberations, a 12-member jury unanimously decided Thursday that it didn’t believe him.
After hearing from about 60 government witnesses and considering more than 1,000 government exhibits, images, videos, jail phone calls and undercover recordings, the jury found Onyeri guilty of conspiracy to violate the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization statute — a fraud and racketeering scheme that involved the attempted capital murder of Kocurek.
Onyeri was the only person to testify in his defense.
He was also found guilty of 16 additional charges, including one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, seven counts of aggravated identity theft and six counts of witness tampering.
Yeakel has set Onyeri’s sentencing for 9 a.m. Aug. 17. He faces life behind bars.
The verdict comes exactly one month after the trial began on March 26 and was the culmination of collaborative efforts between local, state and federal investigating agencies, that puts an end to Onyeri’s “vicious and despicable act of violence,” said Ashley Hoff, First Assistant United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas.
Lead prosecutor Gregg Sofer said he’s been inspired by Kocurek, who came within hours of dying. She underwent 20 surgeries and had an index finger amputated as a result of the attack.
“To come back the way she has, to work as hard as she has, to get back on that bench, I think is easy for us to all watch and see her in court now, but what she’s had to go through to get to this point is pretty amazing,” Sofer said.
Kocurek has been in the courtroom every day of the trial, along with family members and supporters.
Onyeri’s mother has also been in the courtroom throughout the trial wearing a headscarf and sunglasses. She leaned to look at her son as the judge read the verdict. Onyeri’s attorney declined an interview with KXAN after the verdict.
Jury deliberations in this case began Wednesday afternoon following closing arguments.
At one point into their deliberations Thursday morning, the judge told prosecutors the jury wanted the original copy of a note Onyeri is accused of giving another inmate to smuggle out of Travis County Jail following his arrest.
Yeakel said it could be because the note was difficult to read or the jury may be unable to determine themselves if it was ripped from a book, as witnesses testified. During the trial, Sofer said the note was written by Onyeri and instructed his friends not to talk to law enforcement.
The note included phrases like “just don’t talk to nobody,” “let them know that I will sign any affidavit, 100 percent real, that you know nothing about nothing,” and in a reference to officials, “They twist up words. Don’t trust no (sic) of them.”
Before the shooting, Onyeri was wanted in Travis County for violating his probation in connection to a case in Kocurek’s courtroom. Prosecutors say he shot the judge because he thought she was going to revoke his probation and felt as if his racketeering enterprise was threatened.
Fraud and Racketeering Scheme
Two other individuals, Marcellus Burgin and Rasul Scott, both testified against Onyeri and said they were with him the night the judge was shot.
Before the trial, Burgin and Scott leaded guilty to the racketeering conspiracy charge.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the three men were operating a multi-level fraud and racketeering scheme involving mail fraud, bribery of a public official, wire and document fraud, access device fraud and money laundering.
The indictment said they were stealing personally identifiable information by paying off people with access to the victims’ information and filing tax returns in the victims’ names and then bribing mail carriers to provide addresses that could be used to intercept the tax refund checks.
Onyeri denied involvement in the tax fraud, but several U.S. Postal Service employees, including one working undercover, testified about Onyeri recruiting them to provide addresses and intercept checks.
Both Burgin and Scott joined a handful of friends who testified against Onyeri about text message exchanges and in-person conversations with the defendant weeks before and days after the shooting.
One of the many text messages retrieved from Onyeri’s phone from after the shooting says, “she’s f—— lucky dats all I have to say.”
During his testimony, Onyeri tried to explain why that message didn’t mean he wanted her to die, but prosecutors said they failed to understand how that text message could be interpreted as anything else.
“You don’t brag like that. That’s not bragging,” Onyeri said, later adding, “You’re not hood to try to get what I’m trying to say.”
When asked about internet searches of Kocurek’s name on his phone in the early morning hours following the shooting, Onyeri said, “I was trying to figure out if it was true. If she was really shot.”
Toward the end of his testimony, Onyeri said he hadn’t planned to testify but that changed after he heard Kocurek testify.
“I was sad,” Onyeri said Tuesday, during the 17th and final day of testimony in his trial. “I mean, initially I wasn’t going to testify, but when I seen her get on the stand and she didn’t even know what happened. She was just — She was confused, man, and giving her testimony, I mean, me looking at a woman with courage. I mean real courage [being] on the stand.”
Prosecutor Sofer said Onyeri’s testimony didn’t paint him as a credible witness, but friends and colleagues who were in the courtroom when the verdict was read do agree she has courage.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said the life-changing attack on Kocurek shocked the community, especially those in the courthouse.
“We came perilously close to losing someone that we deeply care for, that we respect and that we count on daily. We will never be the same,” Moore said. “But it is heartening to see justice done in this courtroom today.”
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