The off-duty Navasota police officer working security at a northwest Harris County apartment complex thought he saw a teenager with marijuana. The teenager and his friend, sitting in a Chevy Malibu, thought they saw a robber approaching them with a gun.
What began with officer Rey Garza's mere suspicion, however, ended with Garza's fatal shooting of one of the unarmed teens, 17-year-old Jonathen Santellana. As the armed Garza, who was wearing not a security uniform but a T-shirt, workout shorts and sandals, approached Santellana and his friend to confront them, the teens quickly put the car in reverse as he got up to the window. Garza went as far as trying to open Santellana's driver-side door to snatch the keys out of the ignition, Garza has testified. But Santellana sped away.
And then Garza shot him in the back of the head.
Claiming self-defense and fear for his life, Garza has been no-billed by Harris County grand juries three times for the fatal shooting.
Now, though, the attorney representing Santellana's parents, Randall Kallinen, said new evidence stemming from a recent deposition Garza gave should be enough to compel a grand jury to indict him. (The deposition was part of the civil lawsuit Santellana's parents filed against Garza and the City of Navasota last November.) Kallinen presented a new packet of evidence to five grand juries on Monday, saying it is the first time in years a citizen, as opposed to the Harris County District Attorney's Office, has taken a case to a grand jury.
"Harris County has a long history of not being concerned about officers' excessive use of force, and when it comes to shooting people, prosecutions are extremely rare," Kallinen said. "The last time an officer was convicted of a shooting was after an officer shot 14-year-old Eli Escobar in November of 2003. [Santellana's] parents know it's an uphill battle — but every grand jury is different."
According to Kallinen, in the deposition, Garza explains that his own car was parked next to Santellana's at the time he approached the teen's Chevy Malibu. When Santellana reversed, Garza claimed, Santellana “scraped” his own car, causing him to fear that he would be pinned between the two cars. That's why, Garza explained, he decided to fire his weapon.
Kallinen, however, says there is no evidence to show there was any damage to Garza's vehicle whatsoever, and that the only independent eyewitness account from someone not involved in the incident contradicts Garza's account. In addition, an expert asked to reconstruct the crime wrote in a report that Garza's account is “not consistent with any of the factual evidence or the two eyewitnesses." Taken all together, Kallinen said it should be enough probable cause for a jury to indict Garza on the basis that his claim of self-defense is full of holes.
"If that's your excuse for killing someone, wouldn't someone have taken a picture of the damage?" Kallinen said. "That's your defense against murder. But there is no such documentation."
According to the evidence packet submitted to the grand jury, the independent witness, Sheila Moreno, said Santellana's car was nowhere near Garza at the time that Garza fired at him, striking Santellana once in the head and once in the back; Santellana's friend, Kalee Marsteller, had said he had leaned over to protect her from gunshots at the time he was shot. Instead, Moreno said, Santellana was driving away from Garza. But for whatever reason, prosecutors never called Moreno to testify before past grand juries.
Kallinen, who hopes this grand jury will more seriously consider Moreno's account, alleges that Garza shot at Santellana for no reason other than to stop him from getting away.
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"You have to be in objectively reasonable fear of your life in order to shoot someone. You can't shoot people just to prevent their escape," Kallinen said. "That's unconstitutional.”
As Kallinen pointed out, it is extremely rare for a Harris County grand jury to indict any police officer for shooting and killing a person, unarmed or not. According to a recent Houston Chronicle investigation, the last 288 Houston Police Department officers to fatally shoot someone were no-billed by grand juries.
Urging the grand jury to return a true bill, Kallinen wrote, “Most suspects accused of homicide or aggravated assault come up with excuses just as Rey Garza has, yet the district attorney eagerly prosecutes those cases. The fact that Rey Garza was an off duty police officer does not excuse his behavior.”
The statute of limitations on the case expires November 13, and the grand jury is expected to reach a conclusion before then.