HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — A Houston police officer accused of killing a 71-year-old man while responding to a call in 2020 has been found not guilty.
On Tuesday, during the second day of the trial, District Judge Chuck Silverman acquitted Matthew Valdez in a rare directed verdict. This means the case did not go to a jury, and the judge made the decision on his own.
“It is totally a slap in the face, to be quite honest,” Lawrence Cooper, the victim’s son, said.
“What type of message is being sent to the law enforcement officers that are policing these areas?” added Dr. Brandi Cooper-Lewis, the victim’s daughter.
Directed verdicts are granted when a judge determines there is not enough evidence to move forward.
Valdez, 28, was charged with criminally negligent homicide in July 2021, for the death of Walter Cooper just days before Thanksgiving.
On that November 2020 evening, Valdez and his partner were responding to a weapons disturbance call in northeast Houston, where a woman told dispatchers two men were outside of a building with handguns, officials said.
Court records show that the HPD cruiser was going 90 mph in a 35 mph zone, and Valdez did not activate lights and sirens.
Cooper was seen on surveillance video in his black Cadillac at the stop sign on Darien Street, waiting to go. An HPD cruiser passes, Cooper hesitates and then attempts to cross Ley Road and was hit by Valdez. The Cadillac slid across the street into the gas station parking lot. Cooper died at the scene.
Valdez’s attorney, Brent Mayr, told ABC13 that the law allows officers to speed and, at the time, the policy was not clear about when to activate lights and sirens. In court, he also noted Cooper’s blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit.
“It’s almost like they tried to defame the name and the character of my father,” Cooper-Lewis said. “It’s almost like my dad was on trial in this case.”
“This was a tragic accident, but while every crime is a tragedy, not every tragedy is a crime,” Mayr said. “They can seek justice. That’s what the civil courthouse is for.”
On Monday, the first day of the trial, Houston police officers who served as witnesses for the prosecution were questioned at length about the classification of calls and subsequent protocols on the first day of the trial.
“Are they going to send us letters saying, ‘Hey, these are the various codes and when you see them, know that the police department are operating in those sort of contexts,'” Lawrence Cooper said. “We don’t know those things.”
Both prosecutors and the defense agreed that Valdez was speeding during the crash and that officers were allowed to speed when responding to a call.
On Tuesday, after Valdez’s verdict, the district attorney’s office issued a statement.
“The police officer (Valdez) was driving 90 mph in a 35 mph zone at the time, and did not have his emergency lights or siren on, so we felt this was an important case to present to jurors,” Dane Schiller, spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office said on Tuesday. “Our hearts go out to the family of Walter Cooper.”