U.S. Supreme Court action June 8 means a Frog community family can move forward with a wrongful death suit against Kaufman County in the 2013 death of Gabriel Winzer, 25, who was mortally wounded in a hail of police gunfire near his home.
The High Court refused to review a 2019 decision by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. In that decision, the 5th Circuit held that the trial court, the Northern District of Texas, erred when it granted a defense motion for summary judgment, which in effect dismissed all claims against the county and the officers involved in the shooting.
Now the case is remanded back to the Northern District.
“Our hope is there will be a trial now,” said civil rights attorney Daryl Washington, who represents the Winzers. He noted that litigants must still go through the entire discovery phase before a trial can proceed. His clients, he said, are leaving any potential damage award to the jury’s discretion.
The larger concern, he said, is getting justice for Gabriel Winzer.
“We have a young man who had a promising career. We have a young man who was shot down, shot and killed by police using high-powered rifles. They shot this guy from 100 to 150 yards away.”
The officers claimed that Winzer raised a pistol in a firing position and they feared for their lives.
“There’s just no way with the human eye that you can detect that someone has a gun in their hand. That’s just impossible,” Washington said. “It’s hard to even fathom that someone would be in fear for their lives with the subject 100 to 150 yards away.”
Founded in the late 19th century, Frog community is situated on FM 316 just south of U.S. 80, a mile east of Elmo and seven miles east of Terrell.
The following account is attributed to case background taken from a written decision rendered by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2019:
On April 27, 2013, 911 dispatchers received multiple calls of an agitated man standing on a street and firing a pistol. The man reportedly was kicking mailboxes and pointed a gun at a house. Callers described him as black, wearing a brown shirt and jeans.
Officers Matthew Hinds and Gerardo Hinojosa responded to the scene first. Hinds and Hinojosa observed a male matching the description in the road about 150 yards away. The suspect allegedly raised his hand and fired a round at the two lawmen. The suspect then disappeared into the trees.
Officers Gary Huddleston, William Cuellar and Keith Wheeler arrived a short time later. Hinds told Cuellar that a suspect wearing a brown shirt had just fired on them. Officers directed civilians to get inside their homes as they advanced down the road. They lost sight of the suspect and took up defensive positions. They shouted for the suspect to come out.
A few minutes later, the officers spotted a figure on a bicycle. The rider was wearing a blue shirt, not a brown one. He was over 100 yards away.
What happened next is highly disputed in investigative reports and affidavits.
According to case background in the 5th Circuit’s written decision, the officers claimed the bike rider was armed and raised a pistol in a firing position. The officers said they feared for their lives. The person on the bicycle was Gabriel Winzer. Gabriel’s family stated that he was on an innocent mission to show officers his toy pistol.
Audio is heard where an officer yells “Put that down!” Within six seconds of being spotted by officers, they opened up on Gabriel with three AR-15s, an M4 patrol rifle and a Remington 870 shotgun. Seventeen shots were fired, and four hit Gabriel, who was still 100 yards from the officers, according to the court document.
Gabriel fell off his bike and fled. The officers fanned out and established a perimeter around the Winzer house. Meanwhile, Henry Winzer attempted to provide assistance to his son in their back yard. Eventually, the officers advanced on the two Winzers and demanded to know where the gun was. Henry told them the only gun they had was a toy cap gun, which he tossed over to them. Still, the officers approached with caution because Gabriel had his hands beneath his body, and they were unsure whether he had a gun, according to the court document.
When the officers attempted to cuff the Winzers, they resisted, the court document states. Two officers used a Taser on Gabriel, who went limp. EMS later pronounced Gabriel dead at the scene, according to the court document.
Texas Rangers investigated the shooting and presented evidence to a grand jury, which no-billed the officers.
Henry Winzer filed a wrongful death suit on April 22, 2015, naming Hinds and unknown state troopers and unknown paramedics. Gabriel’s mother, Eunice Winzer, filed a separate wrongful death suit five days later naming Kaufman County. The suit was amended on Sept. 18, 2015, to include Cuellar and Huddleston. All the suits were consolidated on Sept. 19, 2015.
District Judge David C. Godbey of the Northern District ultimately granted summary judgment to the defendants. Cuellar and Huddleston were time-barred from becoming defendants in the suit. Hinds was entitled to qualified immunity because he had probable cause to believe Gabriel posed a threat of serious bodily harm, Godbey ruled. Kaufman County argued it, too, should be awarded summary judgment because there can be no liability if the officers committed no constitutional offenses.
The 5th Circuit, however, found problems with Godbey’s ruling. The officers, including Hinds, were dismissed from the case. But the suit against Kaufman County was allowed to go forward.
The death of Gabriel Winzer fits a familiar pattern, according to Washington.
“We have seen these cases throughout the country. I’ve seen cases where the person has been white and had a gun … and lived to tell about it. The majority of these cases when they’re African American, they end up dead,” said Washington.
“I just think there are underlying issues that I am glad this country is now addressing,” said Washington, who later added, “I think now more than ever it’s time to try to heal all of this instead of continuing to hide these issues.”