During recent months our country has followed a number of headline-making
cases in which law enforcement officers involved in fatal shootings were
cleared of all wrongdoing by grand juries. Harris County, TX was no different;
47 officer shooting cases were brought forth in 2014, and local grand
juries cleared the officers in every case.
Notably, in August 2014 a Harris County grand jury decided not to indict
an off-duty officer accused of fatally shooting Jonathen Santellana, an
unarmed 17-year old. In November 2013, Jonathen and his girlfriend were
sitting in his car outside of an apartment complex talking when an armed
man approached the vehicle and drew his gun. The armed man happened to
be an off-duty Navasota police officer dressed in plainclothes named Ray
Garza. Mr. Garza did not identify himself as he approached with his gun
raised. Jonathen, out of fear for his and his girlfriend's lives,
threw his car into reverse in an attempt to protect himself and his girlfriend.
As Jonathen was driving away from Ray Garza, Mr. Garza shot six times into
Jonathen's rear window. Jonathen was hit twice as he lost control
of his vehicle and colliding with a second vehicle which was occupied
by another guest of the apartment complex. After the shooting, Mr. Garza
claimed that he shot Jonathen in self-defense because he believed Jonathen
was trying to run him over. Ray Garza allegedly sustained minor injuries;
however, Jonathen was killed by gunshot wounds to his back and head.
The Santellana family was outraged and devastated by the grand jury's
decision last summer not to indict the man who killed their son. Jonathen's
father, Joseph Santellana, told the Houston Chronicle that the family
"…had high hopes the officer would be charged because of the
way things went the day of the incident, that he was in the wrong."
The Santellana family enlisted the firm of Guerra & Farah, PLLC to
represent them during this difficult time. Guerra & Farah has filed
a lawsuit against the apartment complex where Ray Garza was working and
intends to pursue claims directly against Ray Garza and the City of Navasota.
The Santellana family is optimistic that additional evidence will be uncovered
which will force the Harris County District Attorney's Office to put
Ray Garza before another Grand Jury with different results. Under Texas
law, a grand jury can inquire into indictable offenses that they are aware
of, or indictable offenses presented to them by prosecutors or any other
Alarming Trend Surfacing in Harris County
The grand jury's decision in the Santellana case is, sadly, unsurprising,
as numerous other grand juries in Houston have repeatedly chosen not to
indict officers for shooting unarmed civilians. Earlier in the year, a
grand jury declined to indict a Houston PD sergeant who shot and killed
a 24-year old man in 2012. Interestingly, in this case the grand jury
heard no witness testimony, according to the Executive Director of the
Houston chapter of the NAACP. Officers from nine different agencies were
involved in civilian shooting cases during 2014, but local grand juries
failed to indict in any of these cases, sparking concern over the grand
jury system in Harris County.
One prominent critic is a past president of the Harris County Criminal
Lawyers Association, who told the Houston Chronicle that justice cannot
be made available when no case is heard by a jury. He believes that the
proper way to handle these cases is to have special prosecutors take over
police investigations to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, argued that
the increase in civilian shootings is due to an increase in calls for
police assistance, which often place officers in harm's way. Hunt
told the Houston Chronicle that all police shootings are internally investigated
by the Houston Police Department and the DA's Civil Rights Unit. Furthermore,
the results of the civilian shooting investigations are also reviewed
by the FBI to determine if the victim's civil rights were violated.
Many remain skeptical and critical of internally performed investigations
and evaluations of police shootings. This growing trend of failing to
indict officers can quickly become a dangerous habit for grand juries,
seemingly placing officers' lives above the civilians who they are
enlisted to protect.
Guerra & Farah, PLLC represents clients in criminal and civil cases
from their offices in Houston, El Paso, and McAllen.
Contact the firm to discuss your case and learn about your legal options.