Former Texas Deputy Who Killed An Unarmed Woman Found Not Guilty At Retrial
In 2007, Daniel Willis applied for work with the Travis County Texas Sheriff’s office. He entered in his employment application that he had applied to the Round Rock Police Department. However, he missed the exam date. He had also applied to work for the Austin Police Department but failed the department’s psychological exam.
Travis County hired Daniel Willis as a jail correction officer. Beginning in 2010, Willis applied to be a patrol deputy for the Travis County Texas Sheriff’s Office. He applied three times, and failed three times.
In 2012, one of Willis’ jail supervisors wrote in his review that Willis needed “more development in handling explosive situations and the utilization of common sense.”
Notwithstanding his past failures and the review, in May 2013, Willis resigned his job with Travis County for a position as a patrol deputy for Bastrop County. Less than a year later, on February 16, 2014, Willis killed an unarmed woman without warning. Less than 2 weeks after Willis killed 47-year old Yvette Smith, Bastrop County Sheriff Terry Pickering told the Austin American-Statesman newspaper that some of his staff tampered with Willis’ training records to fix mistakes.
On February 16, 2014, Yvette Smith called 911 about two men at her house arguing. She told dispatch that they were arguing over a gun. When Willis arrived, the two men were in the front yard. They were no longer arguing. There was no gun. Willis however, ordered that anyone in the house come out. Three seconds after Yvette opened the door, Willis shot her twice. She was taken to a local hospital where she died.
Willis had on a bullet-proof vest, used his SUV for cover, and also used his personal assault rifle. He carried 28 rounds of ammunition.
A grand jury indicted Daniel Willis for murder. He was fired from his job. At his first trial, Willis’ defense argued that Willis was constrained because he only fired twice when he could have fired 28 times. The jury hung on an 8-4 vote for guilty. The prosecutor re-tried. Willis opted for a bench trial.
Defense attorney Kristen Jernigan said that Willis was expecting to see a gun based on what he was told by the 911 dispatcher. Defense attorney Robert McCabe faulted a dispatcher for failing to relay to Willis that a shotgun had been laid down on a table inside the house.
Along with his failures and lack of training, at trial, the prosecutor revealed that Willis suffers from poor night vision and on the night he killed Yvette, that he was not wearing his tactical glasses. Willis was approximately 40 feet from Yvette when he shot her.
Willis claimed that he saw Yvette with a gun and that she failed to comply with orders. That was later found to be false.
On April 8, 2016, visiting District Judge Albert McCaig cleared Willis of the charge. Judge McCaig usually works in Waller County where the death of Sandra Bland, while in custody, drew national attention. Judge McCaig presided over the grand jury that investigated Sandra’s death.
In a lengthy statement before his ruling, judge McCaig described Yvette as a victim, but apportioned part of the blame on the two men who were fighting Willis’ defense attorney used that to blame the men’s behavior for Yvette’s death.
Willis was named as a defendant in a $5 million negligent hiring lawsuit filed in federal court by Yvette’s family. The case was settled for $1.22 million.
I feel very sorry for Willis’ attorney. He blamed the behavior of the two men that caused Yvette to call police, conveying to citizens that if they call 911 because of personal altercations and unarmed citizens are killed as a result, that it’s their fault. Willis’ attorney also conveys a distorted view that only a judge is a qualified peer to pass judgment on an officer of the law, and not a jury of citizens performing their civil duty.