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Harris County Grand Juries Cleared Officers in All Shootings in 2014

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 credible individual.

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.