Dead, Dead, Dead

The police killings of Pedro Oregon, Ida Lee Delaney and Byron Gillum

Edwards, now 54, has allied herself with an even bigger organization: She's now the field coordinator for the Harris County Democratic Party. "My life is 'power to the people,' " she says. "If you don't have it, somebody's stealing it from you."

She sees the most obvious parallel between the Gillum and Delaney cases and Pedro Oregon's: cops killing civilians for no good reason. But she doesn't think that the three high-profile incidents are the only such outrages in the decade. "If you look at the times in between," she says, "you will see several similar cases, like the young white brother who was shot in Bellaire. I think it just takes us about ten years to get over the big ones. In the meantime, it's like, 'Oh, shit, I'm so tired of this.' But once you go through that grieving period as a community and it hits again, it's like, 'Damn!' "

In Harris County it's not easy to indict a cop for a criminal offense, much less to send one to prison. Alex Gonzales was indicted in the shooting of Ida Lee Delaney and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison, but the verdict was overturned, and in a new trial in 1995 he received only 180 days in jail, a probated two-year sentence and a $5,000 fine.

No charges were ever filed against Scott Tschirhart for the shooting of Byron Gillum. After being dismissed from the police department, Tschirhart moved back home to Medina County, west of San Antonio, to work as a sheriff's deputy.

But in both the Delaney and Gillum cases, the City of Houston eventually paid large sums to settle civil lawsuits brought by the victims' families: $650,000 to the Delaneys, $350,000 to the Gillums. The out-of-court settlements were tantamount to an admission that the city's police department should have had better control of its officers.

It's still possible that federal criminal charges could be filed in the Oregon case. But the Oregon family members also hope for vindication in civil court -- even as they were protesting the unfairness of the county's criminal prosecution. In March, when an all-white jury found Willis not guilty of even the trespassing charge, the Oregon family's two big-name attorneys, Richard Mithoff and Paul Nugent, held a press conference after the trial. They declared that Oregon was basically murdered, and they pointed to a sworn statement by one of the officers, David Perkins, in which he says he never saw Pedro Oregon with a gun. The district attorney's office, the lawyers complained, had basically thrown the case.

The lawyers further criticized the prosecutors for basing their case against Willis on the testimony of Ryan Baxter, whom Nugent repeatedly called a "crackhead." It was Baxter, of course, who explained why the cops had come to the Oregon apartment in the first place, and Nugent and Mithoff were obviously concerned that a civil jury might hesitate to award a large sum of money to an alleged drug dealer. "From the beginning, the police and the D.A.'s office were out to taint [the Oregon] family name," Nugent complained.

Such criticism doesn't bother Johnny Holmes -- the cussing, death-penalty-loving prosecutor with the handlebar moustache -- who headed the county district attorney's office both during the Delaney and Gillum cases and now. Prosecutors are often accused of being reluctant to press cases against the cops, their natural allies in the day-to-day war against criminals. And in the Oregon case, even before the grand jury had concluded its investigation, Holmes's comments seemed to indicate that his heart wasn't in the prosecution, bullets in the back or no bullets in the back. "An analogy I use," he told the Houston Chronicle, "is that if it is okay to kill a guy dead, it is okay to kill him dead, dead, dead."

But the criticism stings the prosecutor directly in charge of the case -- the same assistant district attorney who, as a member of the D.A.'s civil rights division, investigated the deaths of Ida Delaney and Byron Gillum.

"I'm really irritated about [Mithoff and Nugent] saying this was a whitewash," says Edward Porter. "I believed in my case. I tried my case. I believed my theory of prosecution was the best we could come up with. The jury decided he was not guilty, and so be it. That's what the jury's function is."

Mithoff and Nugent charge that had Porter really wanted to win a conviction against Willis he would have offered testimony about the proper way to conduct a drug investigation. Porter responds that he did talk with members of HPD's narcotics division. Those officers, he says, told him that the tactic known as "knock and talk," which was used in the Oregon case, is employed often by HPD officers. They just don't usually have a drunk, unregistered informant doing the knocking and talking.

Porter indicates that he, too, was surprised that the grand jury chose to indict only Willis, and only for trespassing; Porter had prepared indictments on every charge except that one.

But why only Willis? Why trespassing? Porter, in retrospect, can explain the grand jury's reasoning. In police work, officers must trust fellow officers to make the right decisions. When the line of cops along the stairs outside Oregon's apartment started moving, only Herrada and Willis could see what was happening inside. Of the two of them, only Willis knew that Baxter was going to fall to the ground. When Herrada saw Baxter drop, he could reasonably assume that something had gone dangerously wrong and that he had reason to enter the apartment. But Willis had no such justification, thus the grand jury's trespassing indictment.

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