AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Prosecutors sought Tuesday to portray as racist a U.S. Army sergeant who fatally shot an armed man during a Black Lives Matter protest in Texas, saying he was hostile toward social justice causes and looking for trouble before the encounter.
Daniel Perry's two day-sentencing hearing began with the introduction of dozens of texts and social media posts that he wrote, shared or liked, including some shockingly racists images. The texts and posts had been excluded from Perry's trial, but were publicly released after his conviction and introduced as evidence at the sentencing hearing.
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott meanwhile has been pressing for the chance to pardon Perry under the state's “Stand Your Ground” law. Perry was convicted of murder in April and faces up to life in prison.
Prosecutor Guillermo Gonzalez asked District Judge Clifford Brown to issue a sentence of at least 25 years.
“This man is a loaded gun, ready to go off at any perceived threat,” Gonzalez said. “He’s going to do it again.”
Perry, who is white, was working as a ride-share driver in downtown Austin on July 25, 2020, when he shot and killed 28-year-old Garrett Foster, an Air Force veteran. Foster, who was also white, was legally carrying an AK-47 rifle as he participated in the demonstration against police killings and racial injustice, following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.
Among Perry's statements introduced Tuesday, he wrote on Facebook a month before the shooting: “It is official I am a racist because I do not agree with people acting like animals at the zoo.”
Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020. A few days later, Perry sent a text message to an acquaintance as protests over Floyd’s death got underway.
“I might go to Dallas to shoot looters,” Perry wrote.
Perry's attorney, Douglas O'Connell, objected, saying some of the statements were taken out of context, and that Perry has a right to free speech.
Some of the messages and memes Perry shared were “disgusting,” but others were simply “dark humor” and “barracks humor,” O'Connell said.
O'Connell asked the judge to take into account Perry's military service — he served for more than a decade — and sentence him to no more than 10 years.
Forensic psychologist Greg Hupp testified that he believed Perry has post-traumatic stress disorder from his deployment to Afghanistan and being bullied as a child, and that he may have autism. Perry did not see combat but was near a soldier who shot themself in the head, Hupp said.
His mother, Rachel Perry, was the last person to testify Tuesday afternoon. She said her son was ostracized as a child because of a speech impediment, and that he was an observant Jew.
Perry's conviction prompted outrage from prominent conservatives including former Fox News star Tucker Carlson, who called the shooting an act of self-defense and criticized Abbott for not coming on his show.
Abbott, a former judge who has not ruled out a 2024 presidential run, tweeted the next day that “Texas has one of the strongest ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws” and that he looked forward to signing a pardon once a recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles hits his desk.
The board, which is stacked with Abbott appointees, has already begun what legal experts say is a highly unusual and immediate review of the case on the governor's orders.
The governor has not said publicly how he came to his conclusion. It is not clear when the parole board will reach a decision on Perry’s case.
Perry is assigned to Fort Wainwright, Alaska, but has been classified as in “civilian confinement” and is pending separation from the military, Army spokesman Bryce Dubee said.
Perry was stationed at Fort Hood, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) north of Austin, when the shooting happened. He had just dropped off a ride-share customer and had turned onto a street filled with protesters.
Perry said he was trying to get past the crowd blocking the street when Foster pointed a rifle at him. Perry said he fired at Foster in self-defense. Witnesses testified that they did not see Foster raise his weapon, and prosecutors argued that Perry could have driven away without shooting.
Perry would have leaned into his military training when surprised or in a stressful situation, said Hupp, the psychologist.
"He turned and then looked up and there was a crowd and very quickly what he perceived what was a weapon I don’t see there was intention," Hupp said.
Foster’s girlfriend, Whitney Mitchell, described Tuesday how Foster had taken care of her everyday needs after an infection led to the amputation of her hands and feet when she was 18. She uses a wheelchair and was with Foster at the demonstration when he was gunned down.
“He took care of me,” Mitchell said through tears. “He would wash my face, do my hair, he helped me put my clothing on, he helped put on my makeup ... He helped me when I couldn’t do anything.”
Jim Vertuno, The Associated Press