Price of Justice

A jury tags Harris County for hiring the killer behind the badge

A federal jury scripted another chapter in the bizarre saga of former sheriff's deputy Joseph Kent McGowen last week when it awarded the family of the late Susan White more than $5.3 million for her murder by McGowen. If the verdict is upheld on appeal, Harris County taxpayers -- not McGowen -- will be on the hook for most of the judgment.

White's survivors had sued McGowen and the Harris County Sheriff's Department for violating White's civil rights, claiming the county had been negligent in hiring McGowen because of his checkered past as a law officer.

"The sheriff's department did not do an adequate background check on Joseph McGowen," said James Brannon, one of the lawyers for White's relatives. "They should have never hired him."

The five-man, three-woman jury appeared to agree. In addition to assessing McGowen $1 million in punitive damages, jurors found Harris County and McGowen liable for more than $4.3 million in actual or compensatory damages. Since McGowen is, according to his attorney, basically broke, the county could end up having to pay the entire $4.3 million.

McGowen was convicted of murder two and a half years ago in the killing of White, a single mother who had told friends that McGowen had been terrorizing her and her son during the deputy's patrols of her subdivision in the FM 1960 area. On the night of the August 1992 killing, McGowen forced his way into White's home, ostensibly to jail her on an arrest warrant -- a warrant he had obtained under false pretenses. The deputy shot White to death in her bedroom, later claiming that she had leveled a pistol at him with her right hand. But White was left-handed -- one of a number of discrepancies in McGowen's alibi.

During the trial of the suit, jurors heard little about the events that transpired the night White was killed. After listening to testimony about McGowen's murder conviction, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt issued an instructed verdict against the former deputy. At that point, the only issues left to be decided by the jury were whether Harris County had been negligent in hiring McGowen, and, if so, how much money White's survivors deserved.

McGowen had been dismissed from two previous law enforcement jobs before applying to the sheriff's department. Attorneys for White's family also presented evidence that McGowen, in filling out his application to become a deputy sheriff, admitted that he was not eligible to be rehired by the Houston Police Department, where he had worked as a patrolman for three years before resigning to go back to school.

Although McGowen's HPD personnel file revealed nothing damaging to the ex-officer, other department files on McGowen contained critical letters from some of his former supervisors, including one who wrote that McGowen should not be allowed to work around other people. While attempting to be rehired by HPD, McGowen also failed two psychological examinations.

"The county should have been more thorough," said Gene Haygood, the attorney for White's son Jason Aguillar, now 21.

But when McGowen was hired in 1990, the sheriff's department under Johnny Klevenhagen was on a hiring binge to staff the new county jail that opened a year later. McGowen was only one of the new hires with questionable backgrounds as the county scrambled to meet court-ordered staffing requirements for the jail.

"We still feel we did everything we should have," said one department official, adding that the county was hamstrung in checking McGowen's background because it was unaware of the other HPD files.

The county will appeal the jury's decision. According to assistant county attorney Jay Siskind, in order to prove that the county violated White's civil rights, the plaintiffs should have had to prove more than negligence on the county's part. Even if the sheriff's department should have dug deeper into McGowen's past, its failure to do so would only constitute negligence, says Siskind. To prove a civil rights violation, White's family should have had to demonstrate that the sheriff's department knew of the documents critical of McGowen but chose to ignore them.

"That would be an intentional decision," said Siskind. "That would have been deliberate indifference."

Attorneys on both sides say it could take several years for the appeal to run its course. Meanwhile, White's family is anxiously awaiting the outcome of McGowen's appeal of his conviction, for which he received a 15-year sentence. If the ex-lawman had been sentenced to 15 years and a day, he would have had to begin serving his sentence immediately. Anyone sentenced to 15 years or less can remain free on bond during the appeals process.

McGowen hasn't exactly been a model citizen since his conviction. He was jailed for several days last October after being accused of assaulting his ex-wife. Perhaps with that in mind, last week McGowen's lawyer thought it best that he not be in the courtroom when the jury's verdict was read.

"I wanted to avoid any possible confrontation with [White's] family," said McGowen's attorney, John Curtis.

 
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