Putting Larry’s killer on trial

August 26, 2014

Lucian Villaseñor reports on the fight to bring an Austin police detective to justice.

TUESDAY, AUGUST 26, will mark the beginning of the pre-trial for Austin, Texas, Detective Charles Kleinert, who was indicted on charges of manslaughter last May, nearly one year after he murdered 32-year-old Larry Jackson Jr. This victory, after a decade of no action against the Austin Police Department for the extrajudicial killing of unarmed people of color, marks the first step towards holding the officer accountable and convicting him of murder.

On July 26, 2013, while police were investigating a robbery that occurred earlier in the day, Jackson tried to enter Benchmark Bank during business hours, but was stopped by locked doors. Detective Kleinert, who was inside investigating the bank robbery, pursued Jackson and beat him, breaking his ribs and perforating his colon. He then placed his gun to the back of Larry's neck and pulled the trigger.

Larry was supposed to return home that day in order to take his three visiting children back to their mother in Mississippi. Instead, Larry's mother Billie Mercer filed a missing person's report with the Austin Police Department. Despite the police knowing full well that they had killed her son, they made her wait over a day before informing her, so they could get their stories straight and come up with a narrative to frame Larry as a criminal.

Charles Kleinert (left) arrives at the courthouse to face charges of killing Larry Jackson Jr.
Charles Kleinert (left) arrives at the courthouse to face charges of killing Larry Jackson Jr.

For the next 10 months, the Jackson family led a campaign with local groups, including rallies, press conferences, block walks, public talks and vigils, in order to build pressure for an indictment. In one of the most notable moments of the campaign, Larry's sister LaKiza led a petition drop to District Attorney Rosemary Lehmburg's office.

The DA's office is in charge of presenting evidence in a case to the grand jury, and Assistant DA Gary Cobb claimed that some prosecutors pursue cases more aggressively than others. These inconsistencies show a lack of political will from the Travis County Attorney's Office to serve the people and prosecute police who terrorize our communities--which is why the Jackson family's campaign for justice has evolved into directing pressure on the DA to secure a criminal indictment.

On the day that the indictment was announced, Larry's sister was prepared with two responses in case the DA's office failed to secure an indictment on what should be an open-and-shut case of racist murder.

In front of supporters and the media, LaKiza looked up in the sky and said, "We did it Larry! We did it!" Larry's mother told reporters the ruling was the best Mother's Day gift she could have asked for.

IT'S IMPORTANT to understand why this case has led to an indictment when so many other families of police brutality victims have been denied justice.

The first thing to note is the triangle of institutions that empower the Austin Police Department to act with impunity. One point in this triangle is the Austin Police Association, headed by Sgt. Wayne Vincent. This group is the "union" for the police, and like other Police Associations and Fraternal Orders of Police, it is a force to be reckoned with in local politics. Threatening candidates with no campaign contributions or endorsements if they don't support the group's agenda--more money for police pockets and contracts with cities--leaves them facing little accountability.

The next point is the Austin Police Department (APD) itself, led by Art Acevedo, who commands the armed force that patrols our streets and keeps the community living in fear.

On the night of June 20, at Santa Rita Courts, the APD tased 43-year-old David Scroggins in front of his children and 6-year-old niece Janiyah, as he was picking up his kids from his cousin's apartment. As David approached the door to the apartment, where at least 10 other people were congregating, an officer said, "Hey you," and, without clearly communicating that he was trying to question David, fired his Taser. One prong struck David, while the other stuck Janiyah, also known as "Peanut" for how short she is.

Patricia Owens, a cousin of David's who lives at the apartment, said, "They need to quit picking on people. They come walk through at 11 o'clock at night, smelling people's doors, trying to catch people smoking. Just leave us alone, no one is fighting here, we just want to live in peace."

The last point in the triangle is the Travis County DA's office, which, time and again, has failed to convince a grand jury to indict police, even for some of the most egregious police shootings in Austin. Until Kleinert, not a single officer had been indicted for killing an unarmed person of color in over a decade in Austin--including for the death of 20-year-old Byron Carter, who was killed while sitting in a car, and for the death of 18-year-old Nathaniel Sanders, who was shot and killed while sleeping in a car.

In this instance, it was the DA's office that proved to be the weak link in this triangle of violence. District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested for drinking and driving on April 12, 2013. Afterward, Chief Acevedo, as well as other political forces, distanced themselves from Lehmberg. Sergeant Vincent of the APA went so far as to make public comments calling for her resignation.

Lehmberg, however, refused to step down. Perhaps because of this, or because she wants to end her career as DA in good graces, the DA's office secured a criminal indictment against Kleinert. Combined with the intense effort put in by the Jackson family and other groups on the ground to seek justice for Larry, the DA's office apparently felt it had to act.

As we come to the beginning of the pre-trial period for Kleinert, the Jackson family will have to campaign once again--this time to ensure a criminal conviction, which is even more rare than an indictment. In the coming months, we will need to stand alongside the Jackson family as they continue their struggle and set an example for how to fight back against police terrorism in our communities.

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