Killer Behind the Badge

Susan White complained to friends and authorities about Deputy Joseph Kent McGowen, but nobody listened. Then he killed her.

The investigators now realized what had happened that night. Rather than facing McGowen, White had been on the other side of her bed, near her phone. As she hung up the receiver, she turned her head to see McGowen in the bedroom doorway, and the first bullet struck her across the nose, and lodged in the headboard. As she fell back across the bed she was struck by the second shot in the upper chest, then a third that entered the back of her right arm, traveled through the arm and entered her torso.

From the beginning the investigators had known in their hearts that McGowen was guilty, but only then, as they heard the explanation again on the witness stand, were they sure of a conviction. It was a conviction sealed by damning character testimony from law enforcement officers from across the Houston area. Among the lawmen who took the bold step of breaking the so-called officers' code of silence and told the jury that McGowen was not a man to be trusted was Leroy Michna, McGowen's former boss in Tomball. Michna says he has never seen so many other officers line up to testify against another.

"This is the first time I ever had fear of reprisal for my testimony," Michna says he told the grand jury that indicted McGowen. "I think the boy's crazy. He's very much capable of retaliating against witnesses ... go out there and look at the poor woman who's dead and tell me you don't think he's dangerous to witnesses. If he'd kill her, he'd kill me."

On March 1994, after six days of testimony, McGowen was convicted of murder. However, prosecutors, not to mention White's family, were shocked when the jury sentenced him to just 15 years in prison. Under Texas law, a defendant sentenced to 15 years or less can remain free on bond while his conviction is appealed. At least one juror in the McGowen trial has said that he and other jurors were unaware of that provision of the law, and if they had known they would have imposed a lengthier sentence.

Today McGowen is a free man, pending the outcome of his appeal.
Attorney Clint Greenwood, who represented McGowen during his trial, admits that McGowen's defense team "stayed out of the character issue." But Greenwood is unwavering in his belief that McGowen is innocent.

"If he wanted to commit a murder," Greenwood says, "he wouldn't have brought along witnesses. If you set out to murder someone, you don't do it with a roomful of witnesses."

Greenwood also is confident that McGowen will be granted a new trial on appeal, based on the argument that the defense team was denied the right to make on opening statement.

But the appeal of his murder conviction isn't the only legal hurdle still facing McGowen. White's son, Jason Aguillar, who now lives with his father in Baton Rouge, has filed a $3 million federal lawsuit against McGowen, the Harris County Sheriff's Department and Sheriff Johnny Klevenhagen (who declined to be interviewed for this story due to the pending civil litigation). Aguillar is represented by Blair Davis, a former assistant district attorney, who says the problems that McGowen had at other law enforcement agencies should have been a warning signal for the sheriff's department.

"It just seems obvious doesn't it?" says Davis. "Clearly, [the sheriff's department's] biggest mistake was the neglect in reviewing Mr. McGowen's record and finding out about Mr. McGowen before they ever hired him. And if they did review it, it's just absurd that they went ahead and hired him."

And the sheriff's department, Davis contends, was also negligent in failing to take Susan White's allegations about harassment of her seriously. Indeed, in closing arguments of McGowen's trial, one prosecutor zeroed in on the fact that White had made her fear of McGowen known to officers of the department.

"Doesn't speak very highly of the sheriff's office, does it?" prosecutor Edward Porter told the jury.

Davis agrees.
"Apparently there were people [at the sheriff's department] who were aware of Mr. McGowen's problem [with White] and very little was done to resolve it," says Davis.

McGowen's murder conviction is just one of several recent cases to embarrass the sheriff's department. In April 1993, a woman filed suit against the county after she was sexually assaulted in a stairwell of the Harris County Criminal Courts building by Deputy Brian Nigro, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison after pleading guilty to raping four female prisoners, including the plaintiff in the suit.

In October, Ronald Wayne Acreman, 31, a former county jailer, was also sentenced to 17 years in prison after being convicted on rape charges. Acreman had been fired from his job with the department about a year before the attack on the woman.

In November, 44-year-old Michael Durwood Griffith was charged with capital murder for the October killing of a woman at a northwest Houston wedding chapel. Griffith is also charged with robbery and attempted capital murder in connection with a savings and loan holdup in October, as well as robbery and aggravated sexual assault at a southwest Houston bridal shop the same month. Griffith had been with the sheriff's department for 10 years when he was fired in January 1993, after being charged with assault.

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