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Grand Jury Clears Police Officers Who Shot Houston Man in the Back 9 Times in Drug Raid; Officers Fired

LAW ENFORCEMENT

September-October 1998

On October 19 in Houston, a grand jury that had been investigating the shooting of Pedro Oregon Navarro, who was killed by police officers during a warrantless drug raid on July 22, cleared six police officers of homicide. The grand jury indicted one officer, James R. Willis, 28, for trespassing in the shooting. He faces up to a year in the county jail and a $4,000 fine if convicted (Steve Brewer, "Panel clears six from HPD of homicide," Houston Chronicle, October 20, 1998, p. 1A; see, "Houston Police Shoot Man in Back 9 Times in Botch Drug Raid, Killing him; No Drug Found," NewsBriefs, July-August 1998, p. 10).

Following a tip from a unregistered, intoxicated informant, six Houston police officers entered Oregon's home at about 1:30 a.m. Police officers fired 33 rounds at the 22-year-old, hitting him twelve times, all from behind, some from above. Police found no drugs in his apartment. The autopsy found no evidence of drug or alcohol use in Oregon's body. Oregon did not fire at police, though a handgun was found in the apartment.

On August 24, a grand jury began an investigation. Witness included some of Oregon's relatives and members of the Houston Police Department. The investigation by the grand jury, which met twice a week, was originally expected to take two weeks but continued for two months (Steve Brewer, "Grand jury looking at Oregon-Navarro case," Houston Chronicle, August 25, 1998, p. 15A; Steve Brewer, "Jury hears witnesses in Oregon's death," Houston Chronicle, September 1, 1998, p. 13A; Steve Brewer, "Grand jury probe may take longer than expected," Houston Chronicle, September 2, 1998; Steve Brewer, "No letup as grand jury works on Oregon case," Houston Chronicle, September 22, 1998, p. 25A.)

"We've done an extensive investigation," said Prosecutor Ed Porter. "This has been the longest presentation I've ever been involved in and. . .the longest presentation that anyone can remember around here. We have taken our time. We have questioned the witnesses thoroughly to try and make sure all the facts were before the grand jury."

Oregon's family is represented by attorneys Paul Nugent and Richard Mithoff. Mithoff said, "I am struck by the tragic ironies, considering a few weeks ago a Hispanic killed a cop and was almost immediately indicted for murder and here we have six cops killing a Hispanic and two months later it's a trespass." When the civil suit is filed, Nugent said, "we will vigorously cross-examine, investigate and question these officers on why they repeatedly shot a man who was on the floor of his apartment."

Houston Mayor Lee Brown, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), four city council members, and several civil rights leaders asked the U.S. Justice Department to probe whether Oregon's civil rights were violated (Rick Lyman, "Rights Query On Killing Of Immigrant," New York Times, October 21, 1998, p. A18).

Oregon's family has demanded a federal civil rights investigation and will proceed with a civil suit against the city. On October 8, in a letter to city officials, Nugent and Mithoff said they would settle wrongful death and related claims against the city for $35 million. The attorneys said a smaller amount would be accepted if the Houston Police Department agrees within thirty days to change the policies and procedures which led to Oregon's death (Steve Brewer, "Oregon's attorneys offering to settle," Houston Chronicle, October 9, 1998, p. 37A; Associated Press, "Family of slain man seeking $35 million," San Antonio Express-News, October 10, 1998, p. 21A).

On October 23, officials from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Mexican American Bar Association, and the Hispanic Bar Association called for District Attorney John B. Holmes, Jr. to conduct a second grand jury investigation. They said Holmes should have recommended to the original grand jury to indict the police officers involved in the Oregon killing. Holmes said he never asks grand juries to indict police officers, but leaves the decision to them. He said he does not intend to present the case to a second grand jury (Carlos Byars, "Hispanic groups want another grand jury to look at Oregon slaying," Houston Chronicle, October 24, 1998).

Simon Rodriquez, who served as assistant foreman on the grand jury, said on November 2 that he was "unsatisfied" with the decision of the grand jury. He said he wanted to talk with federal officials about the grand jury sessions and that a federal probe might uncover evidence that the grand jury did not hear (Bob Sablatura, "Grand juror: Justice not done in Oregon case," Houston Chronicle, November 3, 1998).

Demonstrators protested the grand jury's decision outside the Harris County Criminal Courts Building, chanting "No justice, no peace." One protestor, Travis Morales, said, "This gives the green light for cops to go into homes and kill." There were protests and demonstrations for weeks during the grand jury probe, and such protests have continued after the grand jury decision (Brenda Tavakoli, "Demonstrators demand justice in slaying of Oregon by police," Houston Chronicle, October 26, 1998; Jo Ann Zuniga and S.K. Bardwell, "Protestors vow to press fight over Oregon," Houston Chronicle, October 20, 1998, p. A13; Carlos Byars, "Protestors seek jail time for officers linked to immigrant killing," Houston Chronicle, August 16, 1998; "Demand for justice," Houston Chronicle, September 21, 1998, p. 13A).

At a October 21 press conference, leaders of Hispanic groups, Mayor Brown, and U.S. Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) called for protestors to remain peaceful. "There are some groups and individuals who have pressed for more aggressive tactics," said Gilbert Moreno, president of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans. "We're just real concerned. We don't want to see outbreaks of civil unrest" (Leigh Hopper, "Leaders ask that protest be peaceful," Houston Chronicle, October 22, 1998; Editorial, "Hispanics show true leadership in Oregon case," Houston Chronicle, October 22, 1998).

On November 2, the six officers involved in the shooting were fired, following recommendations of dismissals by the Houston Police Department's committees on civilian review and administrative discipline. In announcing the firings, Houston Police Chief Clarence Bradford said, "I have not seen, in my opinion, a case as egregious as this case." Hans Marticiuc, head of the Houston Police Officers Union, criticized the dismissals as "a political decision" (Lisa Teachey and Jo Ann Zuniga, "Six officers in Oregon case fired," Houston Chronicle, November 3, 1998; "Houston Ousts 6 Police Officers in Fatal Raid," New York Times, November 4, 1998, p. A18; Stephen Johnson, "Union chief hits officers' firings," Houston Chronicle, November 3, 1998).

The Houston Chronicle reported on November 5 that officer David R. Barrera fired 24 of the 33 shots discharged in Oregon's apartment. The officer reportedly fired his weapon until the magazine was empty, then reloaded and continued firing. Assistant District Attorney Ed Porter confirmed that Barrera fired most of the shots. District Attorney Holmes said officers can continue to fire in self-defense "so long as they reasonably perceive" a continued threat. "An analogy I use is that if it is OK to kill a guy dead, it is OK to kill him dead, dead, dead," said Holmes (Bob Sablatura, "24 shots came from 1 officer in Oregon case," Houston Chronicle, November 5, 1998, p. A1).

Houston Police Department - Media Relations, 1200 Travis, Houston, TX 77002, Tel: (713) 308-1800, Fax: (703) 308-1813.

Harris County District Attorney John B. Holmes Jr. - 201 Fannin, Suite 200, Houston, TX 77002-1901, Tel: (713) 755-5800.

Paul Nugent - 909 Fannin, Suite 590, Houston, TX 77010, Tel: (713) 655-9000, Fax: (713) 655-1812.