AUSTIN (KXAN) — An Austin police officer charged with murder in the shooting death of Michael Ramos was booked overnight and is out of jail Thursday morning on bond.
Christopher Taylor, 29, shot and killed Ramos on April 24, 2020 in the parking lot of a south Austin apartment complex during a confrontation Ramos had with police.
A Travis County grand jury returned an indictment and Travis County District Attorney José Garza said the case will now go to trial.
“I feel good, but there’s still a long ways to go,” said Ramos’ mother, Brenda, about the indictment during a separate press conference Thursday for a state bill being filed in her son’s name.
The case sparked controversy over the summer after body and dash camera videos of the incident were released, and protesters marched in Ramos’ name.
“Today we have taken a significant step towards justice for the Ramos family and for our community,” District Attorney Garza said Thursday morning in a statement. “My heart continues to break for the Ramos family, and we still have much work ahead of us, but we know that holding law enforcement accountable when they break the law is critical to restoring the trust of our community and to ensuring its safety.”
A grand jury heard the case this month and indicted Taylor on a murder charge. It also heard evidence over Officer Mitchell Pieper shooting at Ramos with a bean-bag round but chose not to indict him for aggravate assault. They returned a “no bill,” meaning there was not enough evidence to indict Pieper.
During a press conference via Zoom Thursday, Garza said the grand jury “heard the evidence and the law and determined that probable cause exists that Officer Taylor committed murder.”
“We know that holding law enforcement accountable when they break the law is critical in restoring the trust of our community and its safety,” Garza said.
As for Taylor, the court set his bail at $100,000 and prohibited him from using any guns, whether issued by the Austin Police Department or his own personal guns.
Taylor is the subject of a joint investigation by APD’s Special Investigations Unit and the D.A.’s Civil Rights Unit. It’s the first known indictment against an Austin police officer for first-degree murder to come out of a use-of-force incident, the D.A.’s office said.
Taylor’s attorneys were not available for an interview Thursday but issued the following statement to KXAN on Wednesday:
“We are disappointed but sadly not surprised at this indictment. As early as July of last year, then-DA candidate José Garza had made up his mind that Officer Taylor committed a crime and went so far as to offer an implied promise to indict him several months before being elected District Attorney or having access to any case evidence: ‘Right now my focus is on the families. My heart breaks for the Ramos and Ambler families as they continue to wait for justice. I look forward to fighting for justice for them. It’s going to be one of my highest priorities.’
We would remind Mr. Garza that his sworn duty is not to be an advocate for one party months before knowing the facts. It is to see that justice is done. Today’s indictment is not justice; it is the fulfillment of a campaign talking point and yet more evidence of antipolice bias. We look forward to presenting the facts of this case, in their entirety, to a panel of citizens not behind closed doors and not under his exclusive control.”-Ken Ervin & Doug O’Connell
APD confirmed earlier this year Taylor had been placed on administrative duty. The district attorney’s office also noted Taylor was being investigated in another pending investigation — involving claims regarding the death of Mauris DeSilva.
What the state will have to prove in a trial
“The prosecution will bear the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant, in fact, committed the elements of murder,” said Jennifer Laurin, a law professor at the University of Texas.
Those elements include intent.
“Meaning that they acted and wanted to kill or knew that they would kill, or that the defendant intended to inflict serious bodily injury and committed an act that was dangerous to human life, meaning that the defendant sort of wanted to seriously injure and acted in a dangerous way,” Laurin explained.
She also said the DA can prove Taylor committed a felony and in the course of doing so, “acted in a way that was dangerous to human life.”
Laurin, who has also coauthored a book about police misconduct, said Taylor’s legal team will likely argue the use of force was justified.
“Then, the prosecution would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt also that those circumstances of justification didn’t exist,” Laurin said.
The professor said legal proceedings like this are rare in general.
“It is quite rare for criminal charges to be brought at all in the context of police shootings or use of force more broadly, and even rarer when those charges are brought to see murder,” Laurin said.
Prosecutors winning a case like this is even rarer still, she said, but:
“There’s actually a pretty small sample size, if we could put it this way, right, for evaluating when it is that juries are inclined or not inclined to to convict law enforcement officials under these circumstances.”
There’s no timeline on when a trial will begin, Garza said, as the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down proceedings. He’ll have more information about a potential trial date in the future, he said.
In July 2020, APD released body and dash cam footage from some of the responding officers of the incident with Ramos. Eight officers were present at the time of the shooting.
They were originally dispatched for a drug-related call off South Pleasant Valley Road, according to APD’s past reports. A 911 caller claimed people in a Prius were doing drugs, and a man there supposedly had a weapon.
Responding officers instructed Ramos to get out of the car. He gets out, however the situation escalates, and a non-lethal bean bag round was fired at Ramos. He was hit in the thigh, according to APD.
This noticeably startles Ramos, and he jumps back into the car and shuts the door, the video shows. Three gunshots were fired as Ramos tries to drive away from the parking spot. APD previously said Taylor was the officer who fired the lethal rounds.
In December 2020, Ramos’ mother, Brenda Ramos, filed suit against the City of Austin and Taylor, claiming Taylor shot Michael without justification.