“A Question of Restraint”
April 20, 2017
For families whose loved ones have died in the custody of police, Texas open records laws contain a devastating loophole. Police departments don’t have to release their investigative files for incidents that don’t result in a conviction. Because the person has died before adjudication, the records detailing how he or she died are off-limits. That has thwarted families desperate for details about their relatives, as well as police accountability.
Austin American-Statesman reporter Eric Dexheimer illustrated the emotional toll the exception can take through the story of Graham Dyer, a slightly built teenager from Paris, Texas, who died while in the custody of Mesquite police. Proof that the article – part of the larger “Question of Restraint” series of stories about in-custody deaths – resonated among readers is that it became the newspaper’s best-read investigation. It also unraveled an open-records whodunnit, in which Graham’s family used skill and creativity to dig up evidence that police had lied about their son’s death.
Police said Graham died from self-inflicted head trauma while they were transporting him to the city jail. The medical examiner called it an accident. Yet his parents, Kathy and Robert Dyer, had suspicions. When they asked for police records of that night, however, police refused to turn them over. Using court documents, interviews with civil rights and government transparency experts, Dexheimer explains how such a policy, when combined with recent Supreme Court decisions, has shielded police from being held accountable for misbehavior. When the Dyers eventually obtained records through a backdoor channel, what they discovered was horrific.
The story – “Police withheld records of their son’s death. Now they know why” — resulted in immediate testimony in front of a legislative government committee. The Dallas County District Attorney’s office, which had not investigated Graham’s death previously, announced it would review the case. Prosecutors later concluded there was sufficient evidence to charge Mesquite police with criminally negligent homicide – but the statute of limitations protected them. Federal authorities continue to investigate.
It is just the first story in this powerful investigation by American-Statesman reporters into deaths in police custody.
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Submitted by John Bridges.