26-year-old Robert Soliz is now a free man after a jury ruled in his favor in a murder trial involving an off-duty police officer. Soliz and the officer, Sergeant Sean Rios, engaged in a shootout that left Rios dead in the lobby of a nearby Houston hotel. The jury sided with Soliz, who claimed self-defense, despite the lack of witnesses or video footage.

The incident is well-known in Texas as a case of road rage gone wrong. Soliz and Rios were both driving on Interstate 45 in Houston when they nearly hit each other. The two men had a brief verbal exchange before Soliz took the exit at Gulf Bank Road. Rios allegedly followed him to a nearby parking lot before pulling a gun.

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Unaware that Rios was an officer of the law, Soliz pulled out his own firearm. The two engaged in a brief shootout, which left Soliz unscathed and Rios with fatal gunshot wounds. However, instead of focusing on who shot first, Soliz’s representation insists that Rios approaching him with a firearm made his retaliation justifiable.

The jury acquitted Soliz despite the prosecution’s attempts to discredit him

Despite the prosecution’s best efforts, the jury ultimately believed Soliz’s story following eight hours of deliberation. Although there were efforts to disregard Soliz’s gang affiliations, including a tattoo signifying his loyalty to the Lindale Park neighborhood, the prosecution still made mention of Soliz’s appearance and manner of speech.

Soliz’s attorney, Paul Looney, acknowledged the prosecution’s attempts to discredit Soliz on the basis of his looks, reports the Houston Chronicle. In the aftermath of the trial, Looney said, “There was an effort from the very beginning to make sure that the investigation was tilted, and incomplete.”

He added, “They were counting on a jury that would not let somebody that looked like our client be acquitted of killing what turned out to be an off-duty officer.”

The judge made efforts to keep personal lives out of it

In an effort to level the playing field for Soliz and the deceased officer, the presiding judge asked attorneys on both ends of the trial to refrain from mentioning Soliz’s affiliation with the Sauce Factory gang as well as Rios’ personnel file from the Houston Police Department.

The prosecution honed in on Soliz’s actions after the shooting to build their case. Soliz fled the scene and neglected to call 911 after he killed Rios. He is also currently in jail for an unrelated crime. Kim Ogg, the District Attorney for Harris County, pointed to Soliz’s initial testimony as proof that he instigated the shootout.

“Paul Looney’s client admitted on the stand that he fired the first shot in the gunfight that ended Sgt. Sean Rios’s life,” Ogg said. “The law in Texas is clear that the aggressor cannot start a fight and then claim self-defense.”

The defendant’s family and the Houston Police Department are now focusing on comforting Rios’ family. However, Looney says HPD never investigated the officer, focusing all their efforts on discrediting Soliz.

“From the very first day, no evidence was ever developed that would show that there was not a self-defense in this case,” the attorney said. “HPD did not do any investigation of the deceased officer. They only investigated our client. And that’s not how you do that type of work.”

Houston PD wanted to keep the investigation internal

Looney also mentioned HPD’s outright refusal to call an outside agency to investigate Rios’ death. Instead, former police Chief Art Acevedo insisted on using the department’s Special Investigations Unit, which Acevedo himself created in 2017.

At one point during the trial, Looney had to leave the proceedings to his partner, Wade Smith, for health reasons. Looney was absent from the trial for months as Smith picked up where he left off. Smith asked Judge Ana Martinez to declare a mistrial on multiple occasions. All of his requests were denied.

Smith pointed out that prosecutors focused on personality over actions. Prosecutors revealed aspects of Soliz’s private life while neglecting to do the same with Rios. Soliz’s attorney cited Rios’ prescription medications and a recent divorce as possible contributors to his behavior.

Soliz’s acquittal reflects a growing distrust for law enforcement

A verdict like this is almost unheard of. Defendants on trial for killing police officers are, a vast majority of the time, convicted. However, Soliz’s acquittal may echo recent anti-police sentiments in Texas and the rest of the nation. In Texas, specifically, distrust in law enforcement as a result of incidents like the Uvalde shooting in May of this year may have contributed to the jury’s decision.

“Somebody accused of killing a police officer — that’s considered the biggest sin a criminal could commit,” said a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Sam Houston State University named Mitchel Roth. “When you have a defendant who is not the poster child of good behavior, you think that would auger against him in a court case like this.”

However, the jury was actually from the second panel of potential jurors. The first panel was dismissed after too many people shared personal experiences with law enforcement-related violence.

Houston PD also faced criticism for packing the courtroom with fellow officers, a common tactic when a defendant is on trial for killing an officer. “Having law enforcement there created a David and Goliath situation,” said Jed Silverman, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “In my experience, a jury sees right through it.”