I reported to the Hays County Government Center in response to a jury summons on June 27, 2022. Little did I know then that I would be selected as a juror on a highly controversial capital murder case, giving me an unexpected and unsettling window into the systemic biases and inequities embedded within the Texas criminal justice system.
As wary as I was about being called, even with some reservations about the system’s fairness, I felt I could be impartial and objective in weighing the evidence, particularly because the prosecution was not seeking the death penalty, which I oppose (in Texas, capital murder cases can result in either the death penalty or life imprisonment). But my first reason for concern was seated all around me in the jury pool, a sea of several hundred mostly white faces: an all-non-Black jury would be asked to decide the fate of a young Black man.
The defendant Cyrus Gray, along with co-defendant Devonte Amerson (who has yet to stand trial), stood accused by the state and prosecutor Ralph Guerrero of the tragic murder of Justin Gage, another young Black man and a student at Texas State University, in December of 2015. Cyrus had already been held in jail for four years without ever having been convicted of this, or any other crime. If found guilty, he would spend the rest of his life in prison without parole. Across the country, this is disturbingly normal: On any given day, nearly 550,000 people are in jail. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, about 80 percent of them are awaiting trial and, therefore, legally innocent.
Now that Gray was finally facing a judge and jury, the evidence presented against him seemed flimsy at best—no weapon, no fingerprints, no DNA, no identifying witnesses, no surveillance footage, no motive, nothing actually connecting him to the crime. The prosecution’s case relied almost exclusively on cell phone tower data known to be unreliable, particularly from that time period. After years of being held without a conviction, it appeared this man might now be convicted without evidence. And no one in the courtroom—not the state, the defense counsel, or the judge—seemed alarmed. There was an eerie normalcy to the palpable callousness playing out before our eyes.
That callousness crept forward in nearly every interaction within this trial, including many details pointing to a very problematic investigation. Once the two co-defendants were identified as persons of interest in the case, after a year and a half of fruitless searching, other important leads were dropped or simply not pursued thoroughly. Witnesses were badgered and harassed on the stand in ways that felt far beyond even a confrontational cross-examination. The accused man’s friends had been coerced, threatened, intimidated and treated as suspects themselves by investigators to the point that implicating the defendant seemed to offer their only way out from under the thumb of the system. Indeed, two of the state’s key witnesses recanted their grand jury testimony on the stand during the trial, saying they had been “shaken down” to the point of giving false statements against Cyrus. When they disavowed their earlier testimony, the atmosphere in the courtroom became tense, with the prosecutor digging in his heels, grilling them mercilessly and casting them as “hostile.” We also learned that recordings of important witness interviews had been lost by detectives, and stored improperly without backup. People’s lives were irrevocably ruined, including several members of the Texas State University football team with potentially promising NFL careers, by their unfortunate proximity to this case and by simply being Black in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Stepping back from the daily grind of this particular trial, I know that many people believe the criminal justice system in this country, and particularly in Texas, to be deeply flawed. According to the Pew Research Center and World Prison Brief, the United States has, by far, the highest incarceration rates in the world. Across the country, approximately 2 million people are imprisoned, many of them awaiting trial with no conviction; a hugely disproportionate number of them are people of color. Texas has one of the highest incarceration rates in the entire country, with over 150,000 Texans behind bars in 2022. Though Black people comprise just 12 percent of the state’s population, they represent 32 percent of incarcerated people.
Less obvious to many is why we—our government, our policymakers—allow it to continue. What jury duty showed me is that the system’s size, reach, and harms did not happen overnight; they were built, brick by brick, like the wall of any jail or prison in this country. One trial, one coerced witness, one unjustifiably held person, one aggressive law enforcement actor, and one flimsy case at a time. Dylan Hayre, a longtime criminal justice reform advocate who has worked on reform campaigns for over a decade, told me the system operates exactly as it was intended: with “brutal efficiency, finding as many ways as possible to dehumanize, destabilize, and delegitimize people.” Each of those ways adds up and amounts to millions of families whose lives are shattered and whose trajectories are forever altered by a system built, seemingly, only to punish.
This brutal efficiency has also led to a number of highly publicized wrongful convictions. According to the Innocence Project, 375 people who have been subsequently exonerated since 1989, including 21 on death row. Just this week, Adnan Syed, featured on the podcast Serial, was released from a life sentence following efforts to overturn his conviction based on similarly unsound cell tower evidence, and the discovery that the prosecution had withheld evidence of other potential suspects. How many hundreds or thousands more innocents remain in jail or prison at this moment, and at what peril to our civil society? I believe in some measure of accountability for those who did harm, and some measure of restoration for those who’ve been harmed, however, the punitive bent of this system rarely, if ever, achieves either of those with humanity or fairness in mind.
Without a doubt, the murder of Justin Gage demands justice. His family deserves justice. But only if the true perpetrators are found, with sufficient evidence to warrant a case to be brought before a jury that could rule beyond a reasonable doubt that they are guilty. Throughout my time in the juror box, my heart broke for families on both sides of this case. The defendant’s family watched their son be dragged toward a conviction without any evidence, while the victim’s family was forced to relive their trauma with each day, watching their son’s death play out in front of them. According to previous coverage, the Gage family simply wants closure after years of frustrating investigations and waiting. It pains me that the people responsible for their suffering may still be in the community, shielded by the unwillingness of investigators to dig beyond their initial suspicions about the man now accused.
The trial lasted over two weeks, and the jury remained deadlocked even after three full days of deliberations, resulting in a mistrial. From my perspective, the lack of unity among the jurors hinged on whether they believed the prosecutors’ flimsy story about what could have happened on the night of the murder, or favored an acquittal based on the lack of evidence against the defendant and the danger of sending a potentially innocent man away for life. This process cost an estimated $200,000 in taxpayer money, according to the court-appointed defense attorneys (presumably not including the expense of keeping a person in jail for years awaiting trial). The prosecution, under the direction of Criminal District Attorney Wes Mau, has committed to trying this case a second time, beginning on October 31, 2022. Meanwhile, Cyrus Gray remains in jail awaiting this new trial.
I remain shocked that the Hays County District Attorney’s Office would spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to bring such a flawed case forward in the first place, let alone that the office intends to waste even more time and resources by retrying it. Retrying this case means holding a potentially innocent man in jail even longer, regardless of the outcome. I ask, where is the justice in sending another young Black man to prison for the rest of his life with little to nothing even tangentially connecting him to the crime?
Along with many others in the community, I feel strongly that the case against Cyrus Gray must be dismissed. Convinced of his innocence, local social justice advocates are working to raise awareness about Gray’s situation, along with many others who have been held in jail for years awaiting trial in Hays County, according to Amy Kamp, lead jail advocacy organizer with Mano Amiga. There is a growing movement in support of Gray via social media, local events, public comment to Hays County officials, and a petition calling on Hays County to drop the charges against Gray and Amerson. I have personally spoken with District Attorney Mau, urging him to dismiss the case. I have also written to the Hays County commissioners and several county judges, including Judge Boyer who presided over the trial, to express my concerns. Perhaps you will feel inspired to do the same after reading this article.
Cyrus Gray is simply one cog in a much larger wheel of systemic racism and inequity embedded in the Texas criminal justice system. Speaking out against a new trial is one way I can begin slowing down the grinding gears of this system, which seem to churn on without checks, balances, or any meaningful internal reflection.