BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — The retrial for fired Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office deputy Daniel Willis starts Tuesday, March 29, but this time the defendant will only be facing a judge, no jury. While there will be no jury present, visiting Judge Albert McCaig Jr. from Waller County is expected to hear similar evidence and testimony that was presented during the trial last year. Here’s how Willis’, 30, murder trial played out and what to expect during his retrial.
The Murder Charge
Willis is charged with murder in the shooting death of 47-year-old Yvette Smith. On Feb. 16, 2014, Willis was responding to a fight between two men at a home in the 100 block of Zimmerman Avenue. When he arrived at 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. He was indicted on the murder charge in June 2014.
The original trial started on Sept. 14, 2015 with Judge Albert McCaig Jr. at the helm. A visiting judge had to be called in because all of the Bastrop County District Court judges recused themselves from the case. The jury was chosen from a pool of 450 potential jurors. Potential jurors were asked about their opinions on recent police shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement and race relations. The Bastrop County District Attorney also appointed Forrest Sanderson as special prosecutor to avoid any possible conflicts of interest.
During opening statements, both attorneys agreed the case will hinge on what the jury deems a reasonable action for a deputy faced with the situation Willis faced.
During the 10-day trial, the jury listened to Willis’ video accounts of what happened the night of the deadly shooting as well as testimony from witnesses. Under questioning from prosecutors, Texas Ranger Brent Barina said there were discrepancies between commands Willis claims were given and what could be heard or not heard on the dashcam video. In each of the video interviews, Barina said Willis’ statements were fairly consistent. Two 911 dispatchers also took the stand to explain the timeline leading up to the shooting. Willis never took the stand.
After more than 20 hours of deliberations, on Sept. 25, the jury foreman told the judge the jurors were split 8-4 in favor of guilty, but each juror was polled and said their mind could not be changed. Verdicts must be unanimous for a conviction or acquittal.
Re-trying the Case
Defense attorney Robert McCabe said although the majority of jurors felt Willis was guilty, an 8-4 split was not enough to warrant a retrial. “They had their shot, they didn’t make it. We should be done with this case, we should move on. It does not belong in criminal court,” said McCabe in September. However, special prosecutor Sanderson said the case would be retried and they would not consider a lesser charge than murder.
Once the defense realized a retrial was happening, they filed a motion for a change of venue because they believed another local trial would be unfair.
Earlier this year, once Willis waived to his trial by jury both parties agreed to have the case tried in front of Judge McCaig Jr. instead of moving the case out of the county. Since neither side was seeking a delay in the case, the retrial was scheduled to start on March 29.
“Mr. Willis and his defense team believe that Judge McCaig is in the best position to objectively evaluate the facts of the case and properly apply the law, including the justification of self-defense. In the end, we are confident that Mr. Willis will be acquitted of any criminal wrong doing in this case,” said Willis’ lead counsel Robert McCabe the day before the retrial.
The Victim’s Family
Attorneys for Bastrop County reached a $1.2 million settlement with Smith’s family in 2015, the largest ever in Bastrop County. Shortly after Smith’s death, one of her son’s spoke about his mom. “She was just a loving, caring, genuine person,” Anthony Bell said. “You got a mother of two gone. The woman beat cancer, just got out of knee surgery and was battling diabetes. She was 5-foot-5, 135 pounds, and if you find that aggressive then you need to turn your badge in.”
Smith’s family and friends were disappointed in the mistrial. “I don’t feel like it is fair,” said friend Norman Tarver. “Right is right and wrong is wrong. How can you let someone loose when you have all the evidence?”KXAN’s Chris Sadeghi will have full coverage of the retrial starting Tuesday morning.