A Jackson County jury found Christopher Taylor guilty of first-degree involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action in the October 2016 shooting death of 22-year-old Whitney Gray – a homicide that culminated a Sunday evening road rage incident at Sterling and Winner roads in Independence.
Prosecutors had charged Taylor, 40, with second-degree murder. A passenger in Gray’s vehicle had thrown a cup of clear liquid at his SUV, and he responded by reaching for his handgun and shooting through the windshield of Gray's minivan to his left.
The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for about 3 1/2 hours Wednesday at the Eastern Jackson County Courthouse before reaching its verdict.
Taylor's attorney, John O'Connor argued for the honesty of Taylor's taped confession to police in South Dakota after he fled the state and was captured – that Taylor did not intentionally fire into Gray's vehicle. Rather, he said, it was an instantaneous reaction after the thrown cup – a reaction Taylor said came from his military training – and a “negligent discharge.”
Assistant Prosecutor Michael Hunt argued that Taylor's act was intentional and not the product of any known military or police training, particularly someone who had practiced with firearms.
“This was not a man who doesn't know about guns,” Hunt said. “How is it muscle memory that you're sitting in traffic, you pull out a gun, reach across your body and fire? There are nothing accidental about this.”
“Guns just don't accidentally discharge; they are fired.”
Taylor, who had no prior state charges, remains in state custody and is to be sentenced on Aug. 24. He faces up to seven years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and at least three years for armed criminal action (if not concurrent).
O'Connor, who did not make an opening statement or call any defense witnesses, said the prosecution's evidence of the taped confession in South Dakota also proved crucial in Taylor's defense.
“It was probably one of the more unusual cases I've had,” because of that evidence O'Connor said afterward, adding that the detective's testimony Tuesday that he believed to Taylor to be honest and that the scenario as Taylor described was not intentional also was key. On video, the detective said Taylor's description of events sounded like a 1-in-1,000 shot. Taylor said he knew the shell casing had fallen outside his vehicle.
In O'Connor's closing, he noted multiple witnesses described the near-instant reaction between the cup hitting Taylor's vehicle and Taylor firing his fatal shot similar to what Taylor claimed.
“This was a mistake,” he said. “It was a horrendous one, but two wrongs are not going to make a right.”
The shooting happened Oct. 16, 2016, after Gray and her niece had bought some groceries and were heading home north on Sterling, with Gray's two young sons seated in the back. Taylor had been tailgating them and eventually went around them. At the stoplight at Winner Road, with Gray in the left turn lane and Taylor to right, Gray and niece Jordan Fisk got into shouting exchange with Taylor, and Fisk threw a drink cup at Taylor's vehicle.
Some witnesses said they thought Taylor's vehicle moved forward slightly before the gunshot. Taylor sped away, and Gray's minivan, with Fisk trying to steer, swerved across lanes and eventually coasted across railroad tracks and stopped on a curb about 600 feet away.
A couple witnesses immediately tried to help Gray before emergency responders arrived, but she was pronounced dead at the scene.
Dr. Marius Tarau, the medical examiner who performed Gray's autopsy, testified earlier Wednesday that the bullet that hit Gray in the upper right chest, just under the collarbone, went through her right lung, severed a major artery and lodged in her spine. Gray likely bled to death in just a couple minutes, he said, and any attempt by witnesses who tried to stop the bleeding could not have helped.
In the video evidence, Taylor said he panicked after firing, and upon learning at home he had hit and killed Gray, panicked again, packed several items and drove aimlessly north. Because of the GPS tracker on his SUV, courtesy of the dealership where he purchased it, Taylor was located and arrested the next day at a hotel in Box Elder, South Dakota – 700 miles from Independence.
In the video, a tearful Taylor said he had planned to turn around the next day and head back.
“All I could do was turn myself in,” he said. “There's no way you could run from that (stuff).”