Just minutes before firing a fatal gunshot that would reverberate through the sheriff’s office for more than a year, Robert Bates was “dozing off” in his patrol vehicle, two deputies testified Thursday.
Deputy Miranda Munson, who, along with deputy Ricardo Vaca, was in a vehicle next to the one Bates drove that day, said she looked over at the reserve deputy, then back at Vaca and said “Is Bob asleep?”
Munson and Vaca both testified to seeing Bates head down for two-to-three minutes just before the 74-year-old insurance executive fatally shot Eric Harris last April.
Bates wouldn’t comment on the allegation following testimony Thursday, and Clark Brewster, his attorney, would only say “that’s all you took away from today?”
The jury of 14 people — eight white men and six white women — heard testimony from five deputies on the fateful Harris raid, including Munson, Vaca, Evan Foster, Joseph Byars and Lance Ramsey, who began his testimony on Wednesday.
All five testified that deadly force, such as what Bates mistakenly used the day of the shooting, was not necessary.
Ramsey told jurors about some of the steps deputies took the day of the shooting to ensure that Harris would not be harmed. He said in 10 years of undercover work, he’d never seen a suspect flee from a gun-buy before.
But still, when Harris pulled the handgun he was selling to Ramsey out of a backpack, Ramsey took it and placed it behind Harris’ seat, to make it more difficult for the ex-convict to grab in case he fled.
However, due to the “plus-one” rule (deputies are taught that in an instance where a suspect has one gun, it’s likely he has another,) Ramsey said he still thought “Oh my god, oh my god, we’re going to have to shoot this guy.”
But Harris didn’t have another gun, and fled from pursuing deputies unarmed. When they saw him reach for the waistband on his basketball shorts, it was not to grab a weapon, but only to keep his shorts up as pursuing deputies closed in.
In one of the videos, Ramsey, who had conducted the undercover gun-buy, was seen walking back to his pickup after Harris had been shot.
“Fuck a duck,” Ramsey said in the video.
Prosecutor Kevin Gray asked him about his demeanor in the video, to which Ramsey replied “I was upset cause someone got hurt on one of my deals.”
“Had one gone bad before?” Gray asked.
“Not that bad,” Ramsey replied.
Vaca, who tackled a fleeing Harris and was wrestling him to the ground when Bates fired his pistol, testified Thursday that his first thought upon hearing the gunshot was that he himself might have been shot.
“I almost got killed,” Vaca said. “(If the bullet had gone) Inches to the right, I’d be dead.”
Munson later testified that Vaca had told her that he was so close to the bullet that he felt the air from the pistol as it was fired.
Byars testified that he had first seen Bates approaching with a rifle-like weapon similar to a pepperball gun, but quickly turned his attention to Harris. So when he heard Harris yell “he shot me,” he assumed that Bates had fired at him with the less-lethal weapon.
“I remember thinking ‘Bob just shot this guy with his less lethal, and he’s probably going to be in trouble for it,'” Byars said. He said he didn’t hear the gunshot at the time of the shooting, but listening to it on video, it sounded too muffled to be a handgun. Brewster has said previously that the gun Bates used in the shooting had a long barrel that slowed the bullet speed and made the gun quieter.
Byars is well-known for his role in the incident because Vaca’s surveillance camera recorded Byars interacting with Harris immediately following the shooting. After Harris, who had a collapsed lung from being shot, said “I’m losing my breath,” Byars replied “fuck you breath,” a comment that brought condemnation nationwide.
On Thursday Byars testified that, knowing what he knows now, he believes Harris was trying to comply with orders from deputies, but was panicked from being wounded.
“I do believe he was trying to cooperate,” he said.
Testimony will resume Friday morning, with the state expected to call Leighton Boyd, another member of the Harris raid, set to testify.
Attorneys for the Harris family issued a press release Thursday listing three items from the trial they find “highly concerning.”
The first issue is the racial makeup of the all-white jury. Though there were two black prospective jurors, they were all eliminated by defense attorneys for various reasons. The release said “this lack of racial diversity gives the appearance of a “stacked deck” and evokes ugly imagery from this City’s troubled racial past.”
The attorneys also noted that, in 2010, Brewster donated $1,000 to the campaign of District Judge William Musseman, who is overseeing the Bates trial. Though not illegal, the attorneys for the Harris family said the donation could “create the appearance of partiality.” They noted the Harris family was not aware of the donation until it was discovered through outside research, and that neither Musseman nor Brewster disclosed the donation.
Also listed in the release were the extreme measures Musseman has taken in regards to access to the courtroom. No cell phones are permitted in the courtroom even if turned off, and anyone who leaves the room for any reason during testimony is not allowed back in until the next break. On Wednesday, during the first day of testimony, several members of the media, the Harris family and even one member of Bates’ family were locked out of the courtroom unceremoniously. The release said Musseman’s rules, “even if well-intentioned, threaten to erode the public’s confidence in the fairness of this trial.”
Thursday’s testimony went off without a hitch, even with the restrictive court rules in place, and Musseman instructed courthouse deputies to work with television news crews who needed to film live shots outside the courtroom. The problem Wednesday, Musseman explained, was that cameras were rolling as jurors – who have been promised anonymity by the judge – were walking past.