By Camilo Smith
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Critics of a Harris County grand jury's vote to clear six Houston police officers of homicide in the shooting death of Mexican national Pedro Oregon Navarro have a convert with inside information -- the assistant foreman of that grand jury.
Simon Rodriguez tells The Insider he wants to talk about his criticism of the grand jury's action, but is prevented by an oath of secrecy enjoining jurors from discussing their deliberations.
Asked the nature of his complaint about the grand jury process involving Oregon, Rodriguez would only say, "I didn't like the outcome ... not so much because of the racial issue, or anything like that; it is just because of the criminal activity that took place here, everybody knows that.
"Because of the oath that I took, I cannot, and of course I will not, go into the details," says Rodriguez, a Hispanic and retired Internal Revenue Service officer. "However, I personally have a lot to say and a lot to tell either a federal investigation, the United States Department of Justice or the attorney general of the state of Texas. With complete immunity, I would say a lot as far as what took place with this grand jury, which resulted in the outcome."
Rodriguez is hardly alone in his criticism. A spectrum of Houston politicians and activists, ranging from Mayor Lee Brown to Revolutionary Communist Party member Travis Morales, have called for a federal probe of the case.
Houston City Council members Annise Parker, Orlando Sanchez and John Castillo have called for a federal grand jury to reopen the Oregon investigation. Terry O'Rourke, a former assistant county attorney and current Democratic candidate for county judge, took a different tack by writing the 351st District grand jury, asking members to contact Texas Attorney General Dan Morales and conduct an independent investigation of the Oregon shooting.
Ed Porter, the assistant district attorney who presented the case to the grand jury, said he had "no clue" whether a grand juror could legally ignore the oath and testify to federal authorities about panel deliberations.
"I don't believe you," exclaimed District Attorney Johnny Holmes when told by The Insider that a member of the grand jury wanted to discuss how his office had handled the grand jury proceeding. Holmes claimed that grand jurors actually had to be discouraged from holding a news conference last Wednesday to defend their decision.
"The reason they called me over there [was] because they were pissed off over all this bullshit they were getting poured down their necks, and they wanted to have a press conference," says Holmes. "That doesn't sound like a bunch of folks who were pissed off about what they did."
Holmes then angrily hung up on this reporter, claiming he had been repeatedly interrupted in his comments. "I'm finished talking to you," snapped the D.A.
To be sure, Holmes is undoubtedly correct that the majority of grand jurors supported the no-bill. Retired plant maintenance supervisor Leonard Calma had no qualms about his panel's action when contacted a day after the decision.
"I voted what my heart and my conscience [told me], and I prayed and I asked God to help me," Calma told The Insider. "God didn't say, 'Okay, I'm going to,' but I feel very good when I comb my hair or brush my teeth [and look] in the mirror: I see a contented person. I felt that I did with the evidence what was right."
Police shot Oregon a dozen times, including nine times in the back, after bursting into his apartment without a warrant July 12. They were acting on a tip from an unregistered informant that Oregon was a drug dealer, but no drugs were found. Police say Oregon had a handgun and pointed the weapon at officers but never fired it. Four witnesses, including a brother of the slain man, were in the apartment when uniformed officers kicked in the door.
Prosecutors presenting the case to the grand jury did not recommend that felony indictments be returned against the officers. After a lengthy probe stretching from August to last week, the 179th District Court panel returned only one indictment, a misdemeanor criminal trespass charge against officer James Willis.
Shortly after the killing, Holmes told reporters that under state law, police could legally shoot a suspect who pointed a gun at officers. He did allow that if Oregon had been lying on the floor face down when he was shot, murder might have occurred.
Attorneys for the Oregon family say that forensic evidence, including the angle of the bullets through the victim's body, and the bullet holes in the floor under Oregon, indicate some of the police shots were fired into him as he lay dying. One officer suffered a minor wound from a shot fired by another policeman.
The 179th District Court grand jury, according to a courthouse source, was not the first grand jury approached to hear the Oregon case. Several panels were bypassed because of members who were either former police officers or were related to officers. Another grand jury, says this source, flatly refused to accept the case for consideration. Assistant D.A. Porter says grand juries are routinely screened to eliminate grand jurors with conflicts, and in this case panels with police-connected grand jurors were eliminated. He declined to reveal whether a grand jury had refused to take the Oregon case.