INDICTED: Former Williamson County deputies charged with manslaughter in death of Javier Ambler

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WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — The Travis County grand jury handed up two indictments, one each for two former Williamson County deputies involved in the in-custody death of Javier Ambler II in March 2019.

The indictments charge former deputies James Johnson, 36, and Zachary Camden, 26, who were present at the time of Ambler’s death — with acting recklessly in restraining and using a stun gun on Ambler even after Ambler told the men he couldn’t breathe and “had a health condition,” according to the indictments.

Austin Police Department body camera video shows two camera operators recording Ambler’s arrest for the crime reality show “Live PD,” which the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office previously held a prominent role in the weekly national broadcasts.

Travis County District Attorney José Garza indicated in a Tuesday press conference that all possible charges were on the table for the grand jury to consider.

“The Travis County grand jury considered all of the facts and all of the evidence in this case and ultimately decided that both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Camden should be charged with manslaughter. The differences between manslaughter and murder is about the state of mind of the person who committed the crime. Murder requires an intent and manslaughter requires a set of reckless behavior,” Garza told KXAN.

“What we know is that Javier Ambler, who was a father, a brother, a son, a member of our community; a person of color died in custody after deputies repeatedly tased him. After they repeatedly put hands on him, after he repeatedly let them know that he could not breathe and that he was dying,” Garza said.

Body camera video showed both Johnson and Camden use TASERs on Ambler, in addition to showing one of the deputies with a knee in Ambler’s back as he lay facedown on the road.

Johnson and Camden’s bail is set at $150,000, and the court has prohibited them from working with law enforcement agencies or security companies.

“With these indictments, we have taken another critical step towards justice for the Ambler family and for our community,” said DA Garza. “While we can never take away the pain of the Ambler family, the grand jury has sent a clear message that no one is above the law.”

Johnson and Camden’s defense team told KXAN Garza did not invite either deputy or their attorneys to testify before the grand jury.

“Continuing to follow through on his political talking point, newly elected DA Garza has racked up two more indictments against law enforcement officers who were previously cleared through independent criminal and administrative investigations. The indictments were obtained through evidence chosen and presented solely by the District Attorney’s Office. Defense input was not solicited and no invitations were extended to Mr. Camden or Mr. Johnson to testify,” attorneys Ken Ervin and Doug O’Connell wrote in a statement.

“Contrary to widespread media mischaracterizations, Mr. Ambler was not pursued for
failing to dim his headlights. He was pursued for the felony offense of evading arrest in a
vehicle, and over the course of the 22-minute pursuit for an additional four
counts of leaving the scene of an accident, one of which involved crashing through a
homeowner’s fence. Mr. Ambler’s fifth and final collision disabled his vehicle and
prevented him from continuing to evade. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Ambler died because of
congestive heart failure, hypertensive cardiovascular disease associated with morbid
obesity, and lymphocytic myocarditis. Mr. Ambler’s physical exertion in resisting the
three officers it took to get him into handcuffs no doubt contributed to his medical
emergency, but Mr. Johnson and Mr. Camden are neither morally nor legally responsible
for his death.”

Ken Ervin and Doug O’Connell, Johnson and Camden’s defense team

In October, Ambler’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county, accusing Johnson and Camden of killing Ambler as he told deputies, “I can’t breathe,” during the arrest. The incident began after the two deputies chased Ambler for over 20 minutes after he reportedly failed to dim his headlights.

In a new statement Tuesday, Ambler’s father, Javier Ambler, Sr., said, “We are very pleased to see that the Travis County District Attorney is serious about seeking justice for our family. Our goal has always been to hold these officers accountable so that there are no more families who have to suffer like ours has. We sincerely thank Mr. Garza and his team, and hope they are able to secure a conviction to send the message that police officers are not above the law.”

Garza also indicated Travis County continues its criminal investigation into Ambler’s death. Former Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody and Jason Nassour, who works as County Attorney Dee Hobbs’ general counsel, were indicted by the Williamson County grand jury on evidence tampering charges in September 2020.

Both Chody and Nassour pleaded not guilty to charges that they played a role in destroying the Live PD video recordings from Ambler’s arrest.

The March 26 status update from the Travis County District Attorney’s Civil Rights Unit shows a pending investigation into Chody and Nassour. The update also shows the DA’s office expects to present evidence against Chody and Nassour from the Ambler case to the Travis County grand jury before the March 2021 term ends.

The March 26, 2021 case update from the Travis County District Attorney’s Civil Rights Unit shows the unindicted list of cases pending grand jury presentation. The case involving former Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody and Jason Nassour remains pending, but the DA expects to finish presenting to the grand jury by the end of March.

Wednesday is the last day of the month.

Calls for justice in Ambler’s death heightened over the past year as national protests, rallies and calls for racial justice in law enforcement, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

During the Tuesday briefing, Garza said his heart “continues to break” for Ambler’s family and that he while it will never be enough to heal the pain of losing Javier, he and the court will work “vigorously” to pursue justice.

The Ambler family attorneys said in a statement they want to show their strong support for holding law enforcement and agencies accountable when these situations occur.

“We want to make public our strong support to the prosecuting agencies in this case for taking first, second and third looks at questionable police conduct and recognizing criminal conduct. We are currently in a national state of awareness and change as it relates to holding police officers accountable when they behave outside the bounds of the law. All across America, change is being demanded and police reform bills are pending around the country at the local, state and federal levels, while we are also in the midst of the George Floyd case, one of the highest profile criminal cases against a police officer in generations.”

-Edwards Law, Ben Crump Law and Romanucci & Blandin, LLC

In-Depth: UT legal expert weighs in

Jennifer Laurin serves as the Wright C. Morrow Professor of Law at the University of Texas School of Law and has co-authored a book on police misconduct cases.

While they have been historically rare, she told KXAN law enforcement officers may start to see more criminal charges as attitudes about policing change in prosecutors’ offices across the country and among the general public.

“There is starting to be seen a shift,” she said, “toward taking a skeptical view or more critical view of what police do than perhaps was the main in the past — particularly for segments of the community that don’t directly experience policing on a day to day basis.”

Laurin said it would be difficult to predict what the most common charges could be in these cases, as this often hinges on evidence presented in largely “secret” grand jury proceedings.

“It’s a mystery, because it is supposed to be, by design,” she said. “The reason it is a secret proceeding as opposed to a public proceeding — which is what we are entitled to by the Constitution at the time of trial — is because the grand jury is a screening process.”

She explained the prosecutors are obtaining input from the public on whether it would be appropriate to bring criminal charges in the first place and pursue a trial. However, there has been a push from defense attorneys and prosecutors alike to do away with the grand jury process — or make it more transparent.

Ambler’s attorneys had previously asserted the Travis County District Attorney should publish the transcripts from whatever grand jury proceedings transpired.

“Under Texas law, it would not be possible without amending that law, which some have called for,” she said.

Laurin also noted how difficult it can be for juries and grand juries to interpret the intentions of officers in use-of-force cases when handing down indictments or convictions — she said the question often becomes why they used the force, rather than if they meant to do so.

“‘I believed that I would be killed.’ ‘I believed that a partner would be killed.’ ‘I believed that an innocent bystander would be killed.’ It’s that question of justification that frequently is what’s at issue,” she said.

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