Austin
11:44 am
Tue February 14, 2012

At Town Hall on Byron Carter Shooting, More Questions Than Answers

A meeting was held last night on the May 2011 police shooting death of Byron Carter, a 20-year old African-American killed by Austin police officer Nathan Wagner. 

Wagner shot Carter four times during the incident. According to police and press accounts, Wagner and another officer approached Carter and his 16-year old African-American companion on suspicion the pair were casing cars parked in an area just east of downtown. Carter and his friend (unnamed in reports due to his age) then entered a car and attempted to leave.

What happened next is unclear: Police claim the unnamed underage driver intentionally struck Carter’s partner Jeffrey Rodriguez. Moments later, Wagner opened fire on the vehicle, killing Carter with four shots – one of them in the back of the head.

It was in light of that uncertain timeline – and strained police relationships with the African-American community, resulting from other shooting deaths like that of Nathaniel Sanders II – that last night’s meeting occurred.

District Attorney candidate Charlie Baird has made D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg's handling of police shooting cases a campaign issue, and the Statesman writes the two clashed at the forum:

"There are two kinds of justice in Travis County — civilian justice for you and me, and justice for law enforcement," Baird said to applause.

Baird said that if a grand jury fails to indict, the office should try again with a different grand jury. He said thatLehmberg'spredecessor took the Tom DeLay case before several grand juries before an indictment was returned.

"He has perverted that. He does not know what happened with TomDeLay," Lehmberg said. This led to a testy exchange during which Lehmberg pointed at Baird and said, "Why don't you just hush. 

You can view KVUE's report on the meeting online.

A grand jury has been impaneled to consider whether to bring criminal charges against Wagner, and police chief Art Acevedo has deferred any disciplinary action against him pending their finding. But since then, a separate jury declined to indict the 16-year old driver of the car. The Austin Chronicle has more:

The failure of the grand jury to hold the juvenile over for a determinate sentencing – a state law that, in cases involving certain crimes, allows for juveniles to be given longer sentences, kept behind bars after their 21st birthdays, and ultimately transferred to adult prisons to carry out the remainder of their sentences – is essentially the same as a grand jury issuing a no-bill in a case against an adult. The failure of the grand jury to act here suggests that the shooting incident may not be as cut-and-dried as police claimed. Were the young men driving around in a stolen car as police initially asserted? And were the two young men furtively skulking around the neighborhood for cars to steal and joyride as the two bicycle cops alleged? At this point, says the Carter family's attorney, Adam Loewy, the answer to each is a definite no. 

 Last month, the private recommendations of an independent citizens review panel were leaked to the Austin American-Statesman, inflaming the situation even further. The recommendation? That Wagner be fired. The Statesman reports:

An independent citizens panel that reviewed evidence in the fatal shooting of a man by an Austin police officer last May recommended that the officer be fired, the American-Statesman has learned. The opinion has remained secret since being sent to Police Chief Art Acevedo late last year, and it stands in contrast to public statements that Acevedo has made about the death of Byron Carter Jr.

Acevedo said shortly after the shooting that the actions of officer Nathan Wagner appeared to be within state law and departmental policies, and he added in an interview this month that he has seen no additional information that "would cause me to retract any previous statements." The revelation of the panel's recommendation in the case — which has received growing public scrutiny in recent weeks — comes as a Travis County grand jury prepares to review evidence this month.