AUSTIN, Texas — Two years ago, Austin Police Det. Charles Kleinert shot and killed Larry Jackson, Jr., an unarmed black man, under a bridge near one of the city’s many greenbelt trails. His death was the savage culmination of a wild chase through the city that ultimately led to Kleinert’s early retirement and indictment for manslaughter.
When Austin’s black community gathered on Aug. 24 for a forum on race and policing, it was Larry Jackson’s name on everyone’s lips. Although far from being the only source of tension between residents and police, Jackson’s death has united a diverse community of activists seeking police reform.
Adam Loewy, an Austin lawyer retained by the victim’s family, who sat on the panel at the forum, claims Jackson was “hunted down and beaten” before being murdered.
Kleinert maintains that his gun went off by accident, but Loewy dismisses this, based on his evaluation of the evidence. “You just don’t accidentally shoot someone in the back of the head,” he told MintPress News.
After multiple delays, Kleinert’s trial was recently moved to federal court. The former detective’s lawyers now argue that an obscure legal loophole may make him completely immune to prosecution, and the community that’s waited so long for Kleinert to have his day in court are worried justice is slipping out of reach.
Injustice in a growing city
Although Austin is known for being one of Texas’ most liberal cities, its race problem is almost undeniable. Recent studies have found that Austin’s population remains deeply segregated, a legacy of an openly racist, pre-civil rights era that’s only worsened amid gentrification and a rapidly rising cost of living.
A 2014 study by the University of Texas found that Austin is the only city in the United States experiencing double-digit population growth while simultaneously losing its black population:
“Austin, Texas has consistently ranked among the fastest growing major cities in the United States (a major city is defined here as one with a population of more than 500,000 in 2000). U.S. Census data from 2000 and 2010 reveal a total population growth rate of 20.4%, making Austin the third fastest growing major city in the nation during that decade.
… Austin experienced a decline in African Americans at -5.4%, with general population growth of 20.4%. It is the only city among the ten fastest growing cities where general population growth and African-American growth point in opposite directions.”
Listen to “Report Shows Austin Shares Blame for African American Exodus” from KUT:
According to the study’s authors, the Austin city government created an explicit “negro district” in 1928, pushing 80 percent of the city’s black population, previously spread throughout the region, into the east side of town, a dividing line now marked by the IH-35 highway corridor. Then, in the 1990s, the east side became lucrative real estate and gentrification began forcing residents to relocate.
Natalie Madeira Cofield, head of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, told the Austin American Statesman in January that the city’s black community is still present, but hurting:
“The preserved legacy of the African-American community has not been completely forgotten as change happens,’ she said, but the region’s torrential growth has swept away much of it.”
‘A different brand of law enforcement’
For many of the hundreds of mostly non-white residents who gathered at last week’s forum, one way that Austin’s racist history translates into today’s turmoil is through police profiling. One black resident, a driver for the ride-booking service Uber, described a feeling of constant surveillance and harassment by cops. Another described how he doesn’t fear gangs or crime in his neighborhood, but worries every day that a routine traffic stop could turn deadly.
As in so many American cities, there’s a growing list of tragic police encounters that draw protest and demands for justice. Although, as the Texas Monthly reported, there have been “dozens of investigations of APD shootings in recent years,” an officer hasn’t been indicted since the 2003 death of Jessie Lee Owens.
Owens was killed while driving a car he’d borrowed from a friend, but which had been incorrectly reported as stolen.
A grand jury later indicted Officer Scott Glasgow on a charge of negligent homicide, before taking the unusual step of openly criticizing Austin’s policing, as reported in December 2003 by Jordan Smith for the Austin Chronicle:
“On Nov. 13, in another highly unusual move, the grand jury issued a report on its proceedings, in which members indicated being troubled by ‘a different brand of law enforcement’ — in which young officers with ‘limited training and little life experience’ were being assigned to patrol minority neighborhoods. ‘Austin and its citizens are fond of boasting of our diversity and tolerance, yet we find it difficult, even painful, to have a public conversation about race and the distrust that exists between certain segments of our community.’
The following January, a judge threw out the criminal indictment against Glasgow.
Residents could be forgiven for thinking Austin’s “brand of law enforcement” remained unchanged when, eight years later and under a new police chief, Officers Jeffrey Rodriguez and Nathan Wagner confronted Byron Carter, Jr. and his friend near a group of parked cars in a similar incident that led to Carter’s death.
Still, Larry Jackson’s death stands out today among that list of dead black men. His family sat in the front row of the forum on race and policing, and their lawyer, Adam Loewy, who also represented Carter’s family, drew applause from the crowd when he called it “the worst police murder” in recent memory.
‘He was hunted down and beaten’
The incident that led to Larry Jackson’s death on July 26, 2013 began with a prosaic chore: a trip to the bank. But that bank, Benchmark Bank, had been robbed earlier that day.
According to media and police accounts, Jackson made multiple attempts to enter the bank through doors that had been locked due to the ongoing robbery investigation. Det. Charles Kleinert approached Jackson after he was questioned by the bank’s manager. Police say Kleinert was dressed in plain clothes, but wearing his badge on his shirt. After a brief interaction, Jackson ran away.
Even though Jackson had been captured on bank surveillance video, Kleinert immediately set out alone in pursuit. Then, in a move rarely seen outside of summer blockbuster films, Kleinert commandeered a civilian vehicle. Here’s how Jordan Smith described what followed in a report from Aug. 2:
“[T]he motorist in question, sitting in a car in a parking lot near the bank, was unnerved by Kleinert’s commandeering of the car. Indeed, the source said that Kleinert was ‘out of control’ and did not effectively identify himself before directing the motorist to drive him around near the bank.”
Kleinert refused to calm down at the driver’s request, instead shouting “Go go go!” to spur the driver into action:
“When the pair drove up to a bridge that spans Shoal Creek, Kleinert spotted Jackson, who the source said was merely walking along the sidewalk. Kleinert reportedly said, ‘There he is!’ before jumping out of the car. Shaken, the motorist drove away and subsequently called the police.”
There, under the bridge bordering on the Shoal Creek Trail, Kleinert killed Jackson with a bullet to the back of the neck. This is where accounts of the incident diverge: Kleinert and Austin Police officials maintain that Jackson struggled with Kleinert and the officer’s gun accidentally fired.
This account doesn’t ring true for Adam Loewy. “First off,” he told MintPress, “Kleinert admitted under oath that Larry was not a threat, so this is unlike other cases where the cop claims the guy tried to hurt him or kill him.”
Jackson’s family and their numerous supporters believe he was deliberately murdered after a vicious beating.
‘It’s just not believable’
MintPress asked Adam Loewy to elaborate on what makes Larry Jackson’s murder so egregious compared to other police killings.
Based on analysis of crime scene photography and forensic evidence conducted by his team of experts, Loewy said Jackson was thrown to the ground and beaten so severely that it perforated his colon.
Loewy continued, “While he [Jackson] was on his hands and knees, Kleinert put his gun to the back of his neck. The bullet went through him, went through his mouth, and it was lodged in the ground.”
Loewy said this evidence removes any legitimacy from the police argument, still sometimes circulated in the media, of an accidental shooting. “It’s just not believable.”
Loewy credits the extreme differences between the former detective’s account of events and available evidence for leading to Charles Kleinert’s indictment and early retirement from the Austin Police Department.
Another factor may be the direct involvement of Jackson’s family in fighting for justice. MintPress also interviewed Bernardino “Lucian” Villaseñor, a member of the People’s Task Force, an organization that seeks to hold police and others accountable for injustices against people of color. Villaseñor emphasized the importance of the family’s struggle:
“I have met other families who are victims of police terrorism, but they are scared to fight back because they are afraid of police retaliation. That retaliation can be everything from getting evicted from public housing to physical violence. I firmly believe if the Jackson family did not stand up and lead the fight for Larry, we would not have gotten an indictment.”
In turn, Loewy said the support of activists and the community has offered some comfort to the Jackson family. “It’s been a terrible two years and it’s reassuring to a limited extent when you have people supporting you,” he said.
Yet despite the indictment, Kleinert’s case has faced numerous delays and still has not gone to trial. In April, his defense argued in a Travis County court that because Kleinert was a member of the Central Texas Violent Crimes Task Force, a multi-agency team led by the FBI, Kleinert could not be tried in a Texas court because he was a deputized federal agent.
“There’s a very little known area of the law called supremacy clause immunity, and basically, it’s literally from the 1800s,” noted Loewy, “and it says if you’re a federal officer you cannot be prosecuted in a state court, you can only be prosecuted in federal court.”
The case was moved to federal court, and Kleinert’s lawyers argue that the same immunity laws mean the case should be dismissed entirely. Loewy said he remains hopeful that the case will reach trial, but the disappointment was audible in his voice. He blamed the district attorney for mishandling the case and only obtaining a manslaughter indictment, rather than a murder charge.
Villaseñor echoed Loewy’s sentiments:
“I believe the delays are because of a lack of political will to prosecute cases involving police murdering unarmed people of color. After we secured the indictment, we had to mount another campaign in order to get the district attorney to set a court date.”
Though the People’s Task Force continues to directly support Jackson’s family and the larger Austin community, the federal jurisdiction of the Kleinert case limits their abilities, according to Villaseñor:
“To be honest, we feel like we have tried everything we can. … I would say the best thing people can do right now would be to learn about the Larry Jackson case, and then tell others who don’t know about it. People need to remember that we have our own Mike Brown that we are still fighting for. We have our own Sandra Bland that we need to get justice for.”
However, in terms of reforming Austin’s police culture and alleviating racist violence against its people of color, activists did have one concrete suggestion. Near the end of the forum, activists from a group called Underground Sketchbook held signs and banners at the back of the roller rink where the meeting was held. One read, “Defund APD: Your actions speak louder than words.”
This is something that Villaseñor also brought up to MintPress, explaining:
“APD uses 44 percent of the Austin budget, and every year they ask for more money. I think if we put resources towards poor and working class people, we would see less crime and have better outcomes for everyone in the city.”