Ex-deputy says he feared attack before shooting unarmed man
HOUSTON (AP) — A former Texas sheriff’s deputy told investigators he fatally shot an unarmed Houston man because he feared the man would attack him when he ignored more than 10 commands to get on the ground, according to a statement presented Thursday at the officer’s trial.
Testimony began in the trial of former Harris County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Cameron Brewer, who has been charged with aggravated assault by a public servant for the death of 35-year-old Danny Ray Thomas. Thomas was black, as is Brewer.
Thomas’ family has said that at the time of the shooting he was having a mental health crisis as he had been grieving the loss of his two children, who authorities allege were drowned in a bathtub by his ex-wife in 2016.
Prosecutors have said Brewer exceeded his lawful use of force and disregarded his training. Shortly after the shooting, Brewer was fired when an internal investigation found he failed to follow the sheriff’s office’s use-of-force policy.
If convicted, Brewer, 45, faces up to life in prison.
During the testimony of Houston Police Detective Matthew Millington, who helped investigate the shooting, prosecutors showed jurors the statement Brewer wrote hours after the March 2018 shooting.
In his statement, Brewer wrote that after arriving at a Houston intersection, he found Thomas with his pants around his ankles and pounding on the hood of a car. Brewer described Thomas as foaming at the mouth and having red bloodshot eyes.
Brewer also wrote that Thomas appeared to be in a state of “excited delirium.” An emergency medical technician who was the first witness in the trial, told jurors that a person in such a state could show aggressive behavior but not be aware of his or her surroundings and that their ability to make rational decisions is affected.
Brewer wrote that he ordered Thomas more than 10 times to get on the ground as Thomas came toward him but that he ignored the commands. Brewer said he retreated backward but Thomas continued to get closer to him.
“I was in fear for not only my life but the lives of others due to the state of the suspect,” Brewer wrote.
The confrontation was partially captured on video, including by a bystander. Brewer had a body camera but it was charging in his vehicle during the shooting. Video from a dashboard camera in his vehicle, which had previously been made public, showed Thomas walking toward the car but didn’t show the shooting. When jurors were shown the video, one of Thomas’ family members left the courtroom in tears.
The shooting happened about 30 seconds after Brewer arrived at the scene.
Brewer was equipped with a Taser at the time of the shooting but did not use it. In his statement, Brewer wrote that individuals in a state of “excited delirium” can shrug off any affects from being hit multiple times with a Taser.
Brewer wrote he suspected Thomas was under the influence of PCP. Millington testified that an autopsy later confirmed Thomas had taken PCP, but Brewer did not know that at the time of the shooting.
Wes Rucker, one of Brewer’s defense attorneys, suggested to jurors the ex-deputy feared Thomas might reach for his gun. But Millington testified Brewer didn’t mention any such fear in his statement.
Millington told jurors that in the dash camera video, Thomas’ equilibrium appeared to be off, his movement was inhibited because he had his pants around his ankles and he had no weapon in his hands.
Brewer’s indictment in October 2018 was the first time since 2003 that a grand jury in Harris County, where Houston is located, had issued an indictment in a fatal shooting by an on-duty officer.
Thomas’ family filed a federal lawsuit against the county and Brewer for wrongful death. That lawsuit is on hold pending the outcome of the trial.
Brewer’s trial went directly into testimony without opening statements from either prosecutors or defense attorneys. It was not immediately known why opening statements were bypassed. Those statements might be presented later during the trial.
Testimony was to resume on Friday. The trial could last up to two weeks.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70