*Photo is of a building about 15 minutes from where Yvette Smith died, off the side of the road near the Bastrop County Line. It is the first significant building drivers see welcoming them to the County.
Today Judge Albert M. McCaig, a Waller County Judge visiting for one case in Bastrop County, rendered verdict in the murder trial for ex-officer Daniel Willis’s killing of Yvette Smith. Beginning mid-May, he will oversee the trial of ex-officer Brian Encinia on charges of perjury for lying about his arrest of Sandra Bland.
On April 16, 2014, Daniel Willis responded to a 911 call, calmly speaking to a man in the front yard when he got there who told him the situation was diffused. Getting a call on his radio that there was a gun in the house, he went and got his AR-15 assault rifle from his car, stood behind cover in his body armor, and waited. When the door opened shortly after, he yelled “Police!” and fired immediately without giving any warnings or commands, and without taking the necessary time to ascertaining if the small African American woman who had opened the door to check on her boyfriend was armed.
He killed Yvette Smith on the threshold of her own house.
Daniel Willis has never shown any signs of regret or remorse: neither in the dashcam footage at the scene, nor in the two years that followed. Today, his attorneys reiterated that he had no regrets and that if put in the same situation again, he would do it again.
Before concluding his remarks by honoring Daniel Willis as “the man in the arena” described by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, Judge McCaig spoke for about ten minutes as Yvette Smith’s family clung to one another, two rows strong. In those ten minute remarks Judge McCaig made this statement: “So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom.” Although our agenda is more of a communal one than a personal one, to honor the fact that black women’s lives matter, it seems wisest to take his words to heart. Therefore, the clearest way to communicate what took place today is to simply allow you to offer Yvette Smith’s family the solidarity they deserve by reading what Yvette Smith’s mother, identical twin sister, and son had to sit through: All of it. Every last word. Without commentary from me. You can draw your own conclusions. His words speak for themselves.
It would be very disingenuous of me, as well as very short-sighted, to believe that this case is nothing more than a routine case in which Daniel Willis is accused of murdering Yvette Smith. Since the law is certainly what I’m bound to follow, it is that, in simplified terms, the legal question is whether Daniel Willis knowingly [put to death?] Yvette Smith, or alternatively whether he did an act which is clearly dangerous to human life that caused her death. And the question of whether his conduct was objectively reasonable is the controlling issue. I fully understand the law, the indictment, the issues. I also understand the facts, having heard most of these facts through a total of almost three weeks of actually vigorous and well-presented trials of this case from both sides.
This case is also, as Mr. Sanderson had pointed out in his opening, about what we as a culture and as a society expect from our law enforcement officers. They do an incredibly difficult job often in very difficult and intense circumstances, and it is a tribute to the overall professionalism of the police in general that so few situation such as this one actually take place. But I’ll go a step further and say that its not only about what we expect from our law enforcement officers, but also what we should expect from ourselves. Each and every one of us as citizens of this great nation as we react to circumstances that occur within our society.
I’m fortunate in that I answer to very few people in this case. I’m a visiting judge and I don’t run for office over here in Bastrop County. In fact, I doubt if I’ll run for office again due to my age and the length of service that I already have. But regardless of the decision that I make here today, there will be a lot of commentary about what it is and those that are affected by this decision. And certainly all that I do is subject to review by our courts here in Texas and perhaps even higher.
I’m fortunate in that I do not answer to political correctness, I do not answer to the media, I do not answer to politicians. I answer to the law and to the facts as they relate to this case. Also, and I’m fortunate that I have the only other entity that I’m ultimately responsible to, that is my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but I do not invoke his great name in making my decision here today. I believe that would be very shallow and weak of me to do that. My decisions and my comments are my own and I stand by them on my own.
But before I go further, to the family of Ms. Yvette Smith, I tell you truthfully that I am sorry for your loss. I’ve come to find through these proceedings that she was indeed a good person, a kind person, and a gentle person trying to do the right thing. And I know that you will miss her greatly and will continue to miss her for the rest of your lives.
In this situation there is plenty of blame to go around, and there are several people beyond Daniel Willis who share this tragedy that eventually took the life of Yvette Smith. There may be those who may ask how would I dare judge the actions of those who were not on trial here today, but as the fact finder, and as the person rendering judgement on the law, that is what I am entitled to do. And as I look at the facts of this situation, I see that both Willie Thomas and Chris Thomas got a large part leading up to the events that evening. Had they not fought. Had one of them had the ability to walk away from the fight, ultimately that 911 call just after midnight on February 16 of 2014 would never have been made. Whether it was alcohol, fear, or passions, whatever the reason, each of them could have changed the outcome had they changed their actions.
I believe we can all certainly regret that Yvette Smith walked out that door. Yvette Smith is without a doubt the victim in this tragic situation.
And now I do have to come to Daniel J. Willis. You know I was not there in the incident when Deputy Willis fired his weapon and took the life of Yvette Smith. Yet, I have heard a great deal of testimony from all of the witnesses. All of whom may have more experience than I do in highly charged, tense and stressful situations. You know I have had my share of intense situations in life, especially in my time in the military, but I have not personally dealt with a situation like this. I’ve seen the video and I’ve heard the audio many, many times and I’ve come to know it well. I do respect Ranger Verina and the balance he attempted to bring to these situations, attributing good police work and good police conduct to Mr. Willis when it was deserved, and clearly stating his disagreement with his actions in firing the fatal shots. Ranger Verina is also good enough to recognize that a lot of what was said by the other experts in this case was accurate and consistent with his own training. I believe it takes a very strong man to be able to agree with an opponent, and I congratulate you sir.
I appreciate what the other experts brought into this courtroom as they used their training, experience and education to try to make some logical sense from what can only be described as a chaotic and illogical situation. All of that added to my understanding of what happened, and ultimately was a great aid in my coming to a decision in this matter. The expert reports themselves were not all that persuasive, but the testimony of those experts and especially the vigorous cross examination from both sides certainly was very helpful. In retrospect, all of the officials actually agreed on many of the same points, they only differed in their conclusions. And as we all know this all boils down to a very few seconds.
We all know there was no weapon, but was there a reflection? Was there a piece of plastic? Was there a piece of junk on the porch? Was it a large and bright silver earring as those worn by Yvette Smith that reflected back the light from the flashlight? Or was it about the last radio message that Mr. Willis received, the man behind the door with a gun, that priming that was talked about by several of the witnesses. Those are questions that cannot be answered with any certainty. At least two of the professionals gave me an opinion that Daniel Willis should have waited longer before he fired. So my question to myself then became: do I convict a man based upon those opinions alone or do I look at the totality of the circumstances to find the proof beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt. I had to look deeper, knowing it would be easier, literally, to sacrifice one person for the good of some others.
So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom. The truth that both sides have been given a full and fair hearing of all of the available facts. Both sides have been represented by very competent, capable advocates, and no short cuts were taken by either side.
To the attorneys from both sides, you’ve done a tremendous job with a very difficult task and regardless of the ultimate ruling that I make, you may each look at this body of work with a great deal of satisfaction. None of us are rookie attorneys, but you have all truly done what we all dreamed about doing when we were back in law school. You have zealously, courageously advocated your positions with skill, knowledge, understanding, even coming whenever was necessary. And I do commend you for that. And I thank you for the trust that you have given me in allowing me to hear this case and render a verdict in this manner.
To everyone watching this case unfold, I know that you will each carry away from this courthouse your opinions of what I should have or could have done or not done. Frankly, we may agree or disagree on the ultimate decision, but frankly I’m pleased that you’ve come and watched regardless of your reasons for being here.
So Mr. McCabe, Ms. Jernigan, is there any legal reason why the court should not render its verdict in this case?
Will the defendant please stand.
And please bear with me as I read to you one of my life-long favorite passages from Theodore Roosevelt, from April 23 of 1910. It’s a really great passage. It goes this way:
“It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or whether the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who actually does strive to do the deeds. Who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions. Who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement. And who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Mr. Daniel J. Willis, you are the man in that arena, and it is the verdict of this court that you were not guilty of the charges stated.