On Jan. 23, the trial of Carmen DeCruz for the killing of Michael Dean finally began. The trial was delayed multiple times from its original date in June 2021. DeCruz had stopped Dean for an alleged traffic violation on Dec. 2, 2019. As DeCruz was taking Dean’s keys with his gun drawn, the gun fired directly into Dean’s head. DeCruz is being charged with manslaughter, but the Dean family still believes he should have been charged with murder.
During the traffic stop, DeCruz parked his car perpendicular to block Dean’s vehicle. This maneuver, as stated by a former detective called to the stand during the trial, should only be used if the officer suspects a felony. More importantly, the perpendicular parking means that almost none of the interaction between DeCruz and Dean was caught on the dashboard camera.
DeCruz immediately escalated the situation by approaching Dean with his gun drawn and finger on the trigger. He shouted commands to “stop right there,” “open it up,” and “give me your keys.” DeCruz then reached for the keys that Dean gave him and fired his gun directly into his head. Dean died immediately on the scene.
DeCruz has a history of violent actions during his time as a police officer. In 2015, a lawsuit was filed by 15-year-old Kaylem Gonzalez’s mother, accusing DeCruz and his partner of running over the teenager and intentionally burning him under their car. Unable to move for 10 minutes, Gonzalez suffered third degree burns covering his torso, thighs, and pelvis as DeCruz and his partner kept the engine running. Neither officer faced any disciplinary action, while the family had to deal with $300,000 in medical bills.
Temple police have a similar history of violence. In 2017, Stephen Gayle, a 40-year-old Black man with a mental disability, died during what a Temple police spokesperson claimed was “medical distress” during a police encounter. But witnesses at the scene told a different story. Neighbor Wanda Nichols stated what she saw to the Temple Daily Telegram: “[T]hey handcuffed him, and then as they were taking him back to the car… they decided that they would take him down … They actually got him down on his stomach, and one officer kept his knee in his back and the other one was down at the front, kneeling in front of him.” This is a similar maneuver to the police restraint that killed George Floyd. She also described the police punching Gayle repeatedly in the face and slamming his head in the door of the car.
The trial for Dean’s killing has been marred by irregularities, and the events shrouded in secrecy. The family requested Dean’s car to be returned intact for a third party to conduct an independent investigation. However, the Temple Police Department took it upon themselves to scrub a section of the car with bleach. According to a police spokesperson, there was no official order to clean the car.
Despite demands from the family, community members and journalists, camera footage has been denied to the public. Only during the trial has the jury been allowed access to the footage. The little information available to the public largely comes from the police affidavit made during the initial investigation.
The jury consists of only one Black juror, one person of mixed race, and twelve white jurors — an 85% white jury in a town that’s only 51% white. Attorney Lee Merritt, representing the Dean family, has characterized Temple as a “sundown town.”
The trial of DeCruz in the town of Temple is happening in the wake of mass protests for Tyre Nichols, who was assaulted and killed at the hands of Memphis cops. Whether footage is released or not, it is often confirmation of what we already know: The police system is racist, violent, and especially cruel toward Black people. But the aftermath of the Memphis charges shows that the system can actually investigate and charge its own officers swiftly — when it fears rebellion from the people. It is up to the people to unite and mobilize to stop police from getting away with murder!