Former Texas county CO acquitted of inmate assault

Robert Garcia, a 12-year law enforcement veteran, said he acted to protect another officer


By Gabriel Monte
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
        
LUBBOCK, Texas — A Lubbock County jury last week found that a former Lubbock County Detention Center jailer was justified when he kicked an unruly inmate in the head, believing he was protecting another jailer.

Robert Garcia, 55, was found not guilty by a jury of six people in Lubbock County Court at Law 1 on Wednesday after about an hour of deliberation and hearing three days of testimony.

On Monday, after the jury was seated, Garcia pleaded not guilty to a count of assault, a class A misdemeanor that carries a punishment of up to a year in jail.

The Lubbock County Courthouse.
The Lubbock County Courthouse. (Lubbock Avalanche-Journal)

However, he also risked losing his peace officer's license, which would bar him from a range of jobs in which he could apply his 12-years of experience in law enforcement.

The charge stems from an investigation into a May 12, 2020, episode at the jail during which Garcia, a 12-year veteran of the Lubbock County Detention Center, kicked in the head Julian Ramirez, who was being housed at the jail's special housing unit, where inmates who need to be separated from the regular jail population are held in solitary confinement.

The episode was recorded on the body-worn camera of deputy Keylan Kneisel, who was holding down Ramirez when he was kicked.

Jurors were allowed to consider four statutory justifications for Garcia's actions and could find him not guilty if they believed he acted either in the defense of another person, out of necessity, in self-defense or to maintain security in a correctional facility. Jurors were not required to be unanimous on which of the affirmative defenses they could consider.

Garcia, who testified at the trial, said after that he was pleased.

However, he said he was surprised that the Lubbock County District Attorney's Office pursued the case.

"I feel like the DA's office not giving support to law enforcement and persecuting for every use of force will make officers hesitant to use force and as a result possibly lead to some officers getting injured," he said. "I just feel like they should have weighed the case in its entirety instead of just kind of going after somebody."

Garcia resigned the day of the incident, however Judge Mark Hocker kept that information from jurors.
Garcia, an Army veteran who was a sergeant in the nuclear weapons team, said after the trial that soon after Ramirez was taken to the hospital for treatment, he was ushered out of his work station, which he said was unusual.

"After an incident you're allowed to work your day, turn in your report in a timely manner and then go along with your duties," he said.

He also perceived hostility from his supervisors and sensed he was going to be fired, which would cost him the county's contribution to his retirement fund.

"During COVID I was scared to death that I wasn't going to get a job, find employment," he said.

After resigning, Garcia found a private security job that required a peace officer's license. However, his license was revoked a few months later when the assault charge was filed against him.

Since then, his family has struggled as he was unable to find work in his field. His acquittal allows him to reapply for his license and go back to work in the private security industry.

"It's where I'm headed back to," he said.

Stephen Hamilton, Garcia's attorney, said he was happy for his client, who has waited months to clear his name, and said the jury's verdict was unsurprising.

While there are times when law enforcement officers need to be held to account for their actions, Garcia's case wasn't one of them, he said.

"In this case, you've got a law enforcement officer, who's in the jail, who is then trying to protect another law enforcement officer who ... in Robert's position, the other officer's being attacked," he said.

He shared Garcia's concern about the chilling effect the decision to press charges on this case would have on other officers.

"I hope that that does not negatively affect our good men and women in law enforcement," he said. "I would hate for them to think, you know, 'I don't know, maybe I'm just going to wait. My training tells me to do this, to stop to act and to do that, but maybe I ought to just wait because I don't want to be the one who's charged with a crime. I don't want to have to go through all that stuff."

Prosecutor Traci Wisely said she believed there was enough evidence to bring this case before a jury to determine if Garcia's actions were unreasonable.

"We believe this was a case worth trying and getting the citizen's opinion on," she said. "We do have to hold people accountable when bad things happen and we attempted to do that. And as I said the jury heard and saw the evidence and came back with a not guilty and we do believe that they paid attention and were judicious about it and we do respect that verdict."

Prosecutors built their case upon Kneisel's testimony, his body-worn camera video and expert witness testimony from Lubbock County sheriff's deputy Walt Bushey, who helped develop the jail's use of force policy.

Hamilton's defense centered around self-defense laws that required jurors to view Garcia's actions from his standpoint, which included his experience as a jailer that involved stints in the jail's Detention Response Team and as a defensive tactics instructor.

Those experiences influenced his actions the day he made the split-second decision to kick Ramirez in the head when he believed Kneisel was under attack, Hamilton said.

He argued also that the video footage jurors saw only showed Kneisel's point of view and not Garcia's, who was behind Kneisel in Ramirez's narrow cell.

Kneisel told jurors that he and Garcia were feeding inmates at the jail's Special Housing Unit, where inmates are placed because they are either a threat to other inmates, or require a higher level of protection from other inmates, or are being punished for violating other jail rules.

It was unclear why Ramirez, who was not called to testify at the trial, was in the SHU. However, defense attorneys submitted to jurors his criminal history which included convictions for felony drug and theft offenses and a misdemeanor assault.

Kneisel, who was serving food to inmates on the upper level of the unit, said he was at Ramirez's door to collect his food tray but the inmate refused to return it and was being belligerent.

Kneisel said he called Garcia, who was feeding inmates on the lower level, for backup as jail policy requires at least two officers to be in a cell with an inmate.

He told jurors that he expected Garcia to collect the food tray while he dealt with Ramirez.

However, Kneisel said he never shared that plan with Garcia, who told jurors that he believed Kneisel was going to collect the tray, while he stood watch.

Video footage from Kneisel's body-worn camera showed him entering the cell and immediately approaching Ramirez, who was sitting in his bed, wrapped in his blanket, eating cookies. Kneisel could be heard ordering the inmate to stand against the wall.

When Ramirez refused, Kneisel said the jail's use-of-force policy allowed him to use "soft hands," and force the inmate to lay on his stomach on the bed.

As Kneisel held Ramirez, who was still wrapped in his blanket, Garcia's booted foot enters the frame and can be seen striking Ramirez in the head, causing it to hit the metal bed frame and cut his left temple.

The rest of the video showed Ramirez, bleeding from his wound, cursing and threatening the jailers as he is being treated in his cell and ultimately escorted to the sally port to be taken to the hospital where he was given three stitches.

Ramirez could be heard repeatedly yelling, "I was eating my ******* cookie, I didn't do ****." and "My father in Heaven is going to punish you for that ****."

Kneisel told jurors he had Ramirez under control and said Garcia's kick was unnecessary, saying it surprised him.

"I froze up for a second," he said. "I did not expect that."

However, under cross-examination, he agreed that, given Garcia's limited view of the situation, it was possible that he perceived that he needed help and Garcia was acting to protect him.

Garcia told jurors that when Kneisel told him to open Ramirez's cell door, he believed Kneisel would retrieve the tray and leave. He said he believed Ramirez's behavior didn't require the use of "soft hands."

"If he doesn't impose an immediate threat there's no reason to go to soft hands," said Garcia, who told jurors he was asked to help re-write the jail's use of force policy and taught defensive tactics to new recruits.

However, as Kneisel approached Ramirez, Garcia said he briefly turned his attention on the two working inmates outside the cell who were helping him feed the other prisoners and to Ramirez's cell door, which he had to prop so it wouldn't lock behind them.

When he returned his attention to Kneisel, he saw the fellow officer hunched over Ramirez and ordering the inmate to stop resisting. He said he believed Kneisel was struggling to get free of Ramirez, whose hands were hidden under the blanket.

Garcia told jurors that in his 12-years in the jail, which included an 8-year stint in the Detention Response Team, he has confiscated improvised weapons during shakedowns even in the SHU, where inmates are held in their cells 23 hours a day.

Garcia, who holds multiple black belts in different martial arts, said he was concerned Ramirez could be armed and kicked him in the head to keep him away from Kneisel.

"My brain told me I needed to separate them," he said.

Garcia said jailers are trained to always be vigilant around inmates, who are unpredictable.

He recounted an injury he suffered while training new recruits that left him with two titanium plates in his skull. The experience taught him how easily someone can seriously injure another person.

That injury, which still causes dizzy spells and headaches, contributed to his departure from the Detention Response Team. However, records show he was removed from the team for breaking the jail's new body camera policy.

Garcia said he was given a chance to appeal his removal but decided against it because of his injury.

No weapons were found on Ramirez and Garcia said he would still respond the same way.

Garcia said he had no animosity toward Ramirez that day and said he'd only dealt with him once before. In that previous episode, he said he was taking Ramirez to the visitation room, which took them past a classroom where about 60 inmates were attending a church service. He said Ramirez opened the classroom door and yelled, "I am the messiah. I am Jesus Christ."

Garcia said he grabbed Ramirez and took him back to his cell "Before any of the 60 inmates could take action against him."

He said he didn't use any force on Ramirez that day.

Kneisel told jurors he spoke to Garcia briefly before writing his report that day. He said Garcia told him he "messed up." However, that exchange was not included in Kneisel's report.

Meanwhile, Garcia denied saying he messed up and said Kneisel approached him to ask how he should write his report and told him that there was only one way to write it: "By writing the truth."

However, Garcia's own report did not include his concern that Ramirez may have had a weapon or that he perceived any imminent harm.

Garcia said he was trained to only include the facts in his report and exclude his feelings.

Deputy Walt Bushey, who helped develop the jail's use of force policy and also teaches defensive tactics at the jail, told jurors he viewed video of Kneisel's body-worn camera, read the reports on the incident and concluded that the kick was unwarranted.

He said the jail's use of force policy would have allowed jailers to strike an inmate only if the inmate was attacking them. He said the video showed Ramirez being belligerent but not violent.

"There was absolutely no reason for a strike, period," he said.

Bushey, who has a black belt in Karate and also teaches Japanese swordsmanship, said Garcia's kick, which he described as a stomp, wouldn't have accomplished the goal of separating Ramirez from Kneisel because the inmate was being held down.

"You can't push someone in the ground to get away from him," he said.

Prosecutor Chase Stewart told jurors in his closing argument that the evidence was overwhelming that Garcia's actions that day were unreasonable and unjustified.

"There was no immanent harm in this case," he said. "No one in this case was in jeopardy of harm. The victim had already been overpowered ... That's when he was kicked."

Hamilton told jurors in his closing arguments that the law required them to look at the situation from Garcia's standpoint, which was that he believed Kneisel was being pulled by Ramirez.

"It's all viewed from Robert's eyes," he said. "He saw the situation, he assessed it quickly in about 7 seconds — 4 according to the state — and made the decision."

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