BRYAN, Texas — Homicide suspect Dabrett Black took the stand in his own defense for Day 7 of trial, following testimony from two neurology experts.
Black does not deny that he shot Texas State Trooper Damon Allen during a 2017 traffic stop He insists, however, that paranoia led him to believe Allen and his partner meant to harm him, and he shot to defend his own life.
The morning opened with more testimony from neurology experts, who testified concerning MRI imaging of Black’s brain. These experts explained that Black has suffered shearing injuries to his frontal cortex.
One expert, neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg, shared his findings that 23 of 70 quadrants in Black’s brain show deficiencies. He noted Black’s brain shows a high level of asymmetry, which can affect problem-solving capabilities, emotional regulation, and behavior. Prosecutors posed that Dr. Newberg adjusted terminology in his reports to appear more severe for court, though he refuted this claim.
After returning from recess for lunch, Black took the stand. He spoke softly and leaned forward over the witness stand. He expressed difficulty in understanding some questions that were posed to him, but was able to recall memories of certain life events in long-form detail.
Black told his lawyers, who questioned him first, that he experienced a normal childhood, filled with extracurriculars and parental discipline. The defense asked him at length about his experience as an 88M transport operator in the Army. Over the years, with three deployments in Iraq and numerous convoys in combat zones, Black shared the violence he’d witnessed, and the violence he participated in. He recalled an instance, while acting as a gunner on a convoy, in which he shot a civilian vehicle that did not heed to his hand signals.
"Our training, they tell us to disable the vehicle, and that means [from] engine block into the windshield, especially as close as they came and way they were driving,” Black said. “The should have actually been terminated."
Black elaborated that he shot into the ground instead of shooting inside the vehicle, worried at the time that he could be killing innocent people.
"I'm the only one that can stop any other attack vehicle and foot traffic,” he said. “We were trained to never leave the situation because of frantic panic or distraction or eagerness to, you know, fix the situation. We'd seen videos where people didn't and it had been the most catastrophic damage."
Black was asked about the time he witnessed a younger soldier and friend, a man named Cody, injured in an IED detonation. This friend was in a vehicle near Black’s while on an Iraqi highway. Black recalled helping to stabilize the friend while waiting for medics, watching as the friend’s leg dangled by "strings.”
"We didn't go right back on patrol, but they took me off because I asked to be removed, because of my attitude and my reaction to what had just occurred,” Black explained. “I went to my first sergeant immediately after when we went back to the [base]. They wanted to know what happened. I told him to take me off the road for two days."
Black said he believed he would have shot all passing vehicles if he had been allowed immediately back into the convoy. He was removed from action for ten days, he said, which he found excruciating.
"I swear, it was like I was falling out of existence, or space,” he said. “I couldn't sleep. It was dark. And even as a kid I didn't have a fear of the dark like that."
With more deployments and an injury from a truck collision in theater, Black said his wellbeing decreased over time. He was temporarily committed to a psychiatric hospital after telling his therapist at the time that he would hurt someone that pushed him to the brink.
Black said upon reentering the civilian realm, he had trouble keeping one job for a long period of time. The VA offered him psychological help, and family and colleagues pushed him to seek more help, but Black testified the help he received was not, he believed, sufficient. He also found it difficult to be around others.
"I wasn't ready to be that same person for everybody no more,” Black commented.
Black said he suffered from nightmares, and insists that one night while working as a civilian back in Texas, he awoke from sleep to a sensation that he was frozen, with an intruder walking around his room. Black spiraled into a state of regular paranoia, remaining awake for days, he said. His mother would, at times, find him lying on her front lawn in East Texas, as he had been patrolling the neighborhood. Black described being afraid of planes that flew too low, interpreting one plane as having a message attached to it which indicated someone was coming after him.
The day of Trooper Allen’s death, November 23, 2017, Black said he woke up feeling that “something catastrophic” was going to happen.
"I did the best I could to not take off, not get loose... not go down the rabbit hole,” Black said.
Black recalled driving all across his hometown and much of northeast Texas, unable to settle at one place for long. He tried visiting his mother’s, an aunt’s, and a friend’s neighborhood, but could not escape the feeling of fear that surrounded him, he said.
He stopped at many places along different highways, including a gas station, where he did not retrieve his change from the clerk because he said he felt too scared to go back inside. He recalled seeing a white van driving amongst traffic and thinking it was filled with government officials.
Black told the court he couldn’t remember what exactly was going through his head when Allen pulled him over on a traffic stop along Interstate 45. He remembered telling himself to “be cool” and remain calm. When he saw another trooper pull up behind Allen, Black said he believed this trooper had arrived because Allen perceived Black as a threat.
"I don't know,” Black said. “It didn't seem good. At that point in time I know what I’ve got with me. That guy rolling up, pulling up so fast, felt different... something ten times different. The only thing I could think about was my own safety, because I'm sitting there with this big gun all by myself in the middle of nowhere... I didn't want to find out. I knew something good wasn't going to happen. I don't want to assume the magnitude, but I thought they were going to come hurt me. He's moving like there's a threat, like I'm looking threatening."
When cross-examining Black, the prosecution questioned as to why he didn’t shoot the second trooper, Matthew Poole. They referred to his military training, and Black retorted that only Army scouts would shoot all threats. He said his occupational specialty dictated he shoot defensively and then drive away as quickly as possible.
Throughout the afternoon, both sides had asked for clarification as to Black’s intent in killing Trooper Allen.
"I felt threatened,” Black said at one point to his own attorney. “I mean, I’m not going to lie and say that if anything would have occurred further I wouldn't have kept shooting. I can't say that. I know this much right here: when I looked back at my situation, where I was coming back and where I was going, I didn't think it was going to be a safe situation for me. I felt like I did what I needed to before they did something to me."
The prosecution asked Black where he had purchased the rifle he used to kill Allen. He said he had bought it from a man in Tyler. He refused to elaborate further, other than to say it came with the attached canister, and he purchased the rounds of ammunition, using them in target practice.
The prosecution brought up text messages between Black and his sister before the shooting; a conversation during which Black had showed off his new gun to his sister, purchased three months before the shooting. In that exchange, the sister begged Black to seek counseling at a specific clinic, insisting she did not want him to go to jail. In that exchange, Black told his sister that he wouldn’t be responsible for things that happened, because the VA and Army let him down.
At one point while cross-examining Black, the prosecution asked Black if Trooper Allen had laid a hand on him.
“I never gave him a chance to,” Black asserted.
The prosecution asked Black about his behavior when fleeing police in Waller County immediately following the shooting. They stressed that video evidence show Black pointed his weapon at an officer there. Black argued he was not aiming at the officer in this instance, but reverting to his military training, popping up and back down with the gun in hand.
Both sides questioned Black about a remark he had made once he was arrested that night, while strapped to a gurney for ambulance transport. Black had made a remark at the time to an officer about continuing to shoot more people if he still had his gun in hand. At trial, Black said he doesn’t remember making the remark.
"I look at it as sarcasm to my unfinished joke,” he told his lawyer. “That's my own speculation looking back at it, because I don't even remember saying that.”
When cross-examined, Black was asked by the prosecution why he felt in a joking mood at that moment, considering all that had happened that day.
"Uncomfortable situations, I'm going to joke,” he stated. “You don't know me like that."
The trial will continue for Day 8 at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning. Presiding Judge Patrick Simmons told the jury he expects they will receive the case by Thursday.