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Lisa Falkenberg of the Houston Chronicle and Radley Balko of the Washington Post have exposed a disturbing trend in the selection of grand jurors in Harris County, Texas. Falkenberg has also reported on the troublesome manner in which one of those grand juries operated, interrogating and intimidating a key witness in a murder case.

On July 17, 2014, Falkenberg reported that the case of Alfred Dewayne Brown, who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer, reveals grand jurors intimidated and interrogated his girlfriend during questioning:

“If we find out that you’re not telling the truth, we’re coming after you,” one grand juror tells [the witness] Dockery.

“You won’t be able to get a job flipping burgers,” says another.

The grand jury foreman called on Assistant District Attorney Dan Rizzo with a notable familiarity, “Hey, Dan… What are the punishments for perjury and aggravated perjury?” Later, the same foreperson remarked to the witness that if she didn’t tell the truth, she’d face prison for perjury and her children would be taken away by Child Protective Services. Falkenberg says of the grand jurors, “They appear to abandon their duty to serve as a check on overzealous government prosecution and instead join the team.”

Two years later, after having felony perjury charges filed against her by the Harris County DA’s office, the witness changed her story and testified for the state at Brown’s trial. Falkenberg says:

Months later, [the defendant’s girlfriend] found herself in jail charged with perjury for allegedly lying about what time she last saw Brown the day of the murder and whether she called another suspect. She faced bail she couldn’t pay and, apparently, one cruel choice – stay locked up away from her children, or tell them what they wanted to hear.

In a July 18 follow-up, Falkenberg fleshes out what happened between the time Brown’s girlfriend was put in prison to face perjury charges and when she testified for the state that Brown had confessed to her:

Dockery had a choice: Stay locked up, or tell authorities the story they wanted to hear so they could prosecute her boyfriend for capital murder.

Nearly seven weeks in, Dockery chose the latter.

On Oct. 9, 2003, she dictated a jailhouse letter, a desperate plea to state district Judge Mark Kent Ellis, asking him to consider her children, then ages 11, 8 and 6, and vowing to be “a productive mother and citizen if allowed to go home.”

… Dockery also testified that Brown made a landline call to her workplace around the time of the crime, a contention that would have supported his alibi but was never supported with evidence at trial. It wasn’t until more than seven years after Brown’s 2005 conviction and death sentence that a phone record documenting the landline call turned up in a detective’s garage. Last year, the judge agreed to a new trial, but the state’s highest criminal court has been dallying for over a year on whether to allow it.

In her latest piece on the story, posted July 24, Falkenberg reveals that the grand jury foreperson referenced above was in fact an active duty Houston police officer of many years named James Koteras.

Radley Balko followed up with a piece two weeks ago that took a broader look at the Houston County grand jury system, finding that police officers like Koteras have “routinely” served on Houston grand juries, along with probation officers, corrections officers, and other members of law enforcement. He pointed out numerous flaws in the selection process, including that it lends itself to being dominated by “older, whiter, wealthier, more conservative people who both have the time and money to serve, and are familiar enough with the system to even know to volunteer to serve on a grand jury in the first place.”

Then last Friday, Balko revealed new facts: that “Senior Officer James Koteras not only served on the grand jury that indicted Brown, he has served on at least nine other grand juries between 1989 and 2011. He served as foreman at least one other time, and as assistant foreman at least twice.” Balko says,

In a city the size of Houston that sort of overlap can’t happen by chance. It can only happen in a system designed to select from a very shallow pool of potential grand jurors, or one where the selectors keep picking the same grand jurors for a particular reason.

In fact, it appears that the Houston Police Department subsidizes grand jury stints for its officers:

According to a public information officer at the Houston Police Department, the agency also continues to pay its officers their full salary while they serve on grand juries… Houston is paying police officers to both investigate crimes, and serve on the grand juries that then determine if those investigations merit criminal charges.

See other important observations by Balko using the documents he received here.

The role of Harris County prosecutors in the grand juror selection system, aware as they are of who is being picked for these positions and – in the case of Alfred Brown – how witnesses are being treated in that context, is troublesome to say the least. ADA Rizzo told Falkenberg that the fact of Koteras serving on the grand jury, “alone would not cause me to say a grand jury was not an objective grand jury.” How about when Koteras then holds potential perjury charges (which Rizzo actually followed through on) over a witness’s head in order to threaten her with the possibility of losing her children? Sounds like a tactic better suited to police officers during interrogations than citizen grand jurors. But even that was not enough for Rizzo to raise concerns during the course of Brown’s grand jury inquiry.

Brown continues to wait to hear from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals as to whether he will receive a new trial based on the fact that a local homicide investigator withheld exculpatory evidence in his case. According to an earlier article by Falkenberg, the Harris County DA’s office admitted the disappearance of the evidence was an “egregious error.”

 

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