Grand Jury Clears Houston Cop Who Shot and Killed Unarmed Man

Jordan Baker and his son
Jordan Baker and his son
Courtesy of Janet Baker

Janet Baker said she had nothing to say to Houston Police Officer Juventino Castro, after a Harris County grand jury decided not to indict him for killing her son Jordan. Instead she said she wanted to address the judicial system.

"Justice to me is not justice to them, so I do believe that God will get the victory in this situation. There's too much at stake," Janet Baker said to reporters huddled around her inside the downtown Criminal Justice Center.

She said she wasn't surprised by the grand jury's outcome. The shock instead rested on the fact that her son walked out of their home on the evening of January 16, went just three blocks away and never came back.

"I'm going to continue to seek justice for Jordan and his son, little Jordan. We have a lot of work to do." Tears trickled down Baker's face as her voice trembled in a low hush.

This is the first Houston case of a cop killing an unarmed black man after grand juries failed to indict the officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, sparking protests nationwide focusing attention on how cops are or aren't held accountable when they kill unarmed civilians. And Baker's case furthers a trend in Harris County -- since 2004, Houston cops have been cleared every time they've gone before a grand jury for shooting a civilian.

See also: Houston Grand Juries (Almost) Never Indict Cops for Shooting Civilians

Following the grand jury's decision Tuesday, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said the grand jury did not have the nine out of 12 votes needed to indict Castro -- indication, she said, that there simply was not evidence to support a criminal charge against the officer. Anderson released this statement after the grand jury no-billed the case:

"I want to express my deepest sympathies to Janet Baker and the entire Baker family. I know they are disappointed, but the grand jury's decision means they found that there was no probable cause to believe a crime was committed. It does not constitute an endorsement of the officer's actions. ...

"It is our policy to present all of these cases to a grand jury so 12 representatives of our community will hear all the evidence and make a decision on whether charges should be filed. In these cases we seek the most diverse grand jury that is available at the time and we ensure that there are no former or current police officers or prosecutors on the grand jury we present to."

The chief prosecutor in the case, Julian Ramirez, offered details about the investigation into the shooting at a press conference Tuesday. He said that Castro was moonlighting, dressed in uniform and helping to protect a strip mall that was experiencing a spike in crime. "He felt that Mr. Baker met the general description of some of the individuals involved in armed robberies that had taken place recently," Ramirez said.

Castro also told authorities that Baker, 26, was acting suspiciously, which is when Castro decided to see what he was up to. Castro said Baker reacted aggressively toward him and the interaction turned violent. "The officer stated that he was placed in fear by some of Mr. Baker's actions, namely by reaching in and out of his pockets," Ramirez stated.

Castro told investigators that Baker was riding his bicycle slowly through the parking lot, looking into windows as if he were casing some of the businesses; still, there's no reason to believe that Baker was in any way connected to the recent robberies at the strip mall, the assistant district attorney said, and Janet Baker says her son had every right to be riding his bike through the strip-mall parking lot that night.

Castro told authorities that when Baker saw a cop sitting in the lot, he made a u-turn on his bike away from the officer, Ramirez said.

At that point Castro approached an unarmed Baker, and they got into a scuffle, Castro told investigators. Castro claimed Baker shoulder-checked him and was resisting commands to comply with a police officer. Castro chased Baker into a dark alley behind a Little Caesars Pizza restaurant. Castro reported that while in the dark, Baker turned and said he wouldn't go to jail, and charged at the officer with his hand reaching toward his waistband. That's when, Castro told investigators, he was in fear for his life and let off a single round into Baker's chest, killing him.

"We didn't just take officer Castro's word for it. But the fact of the matter was we didn't have any other eyewitnesses to the shooting that took place in the dark alley," Ramirez said. Investigators interviewed 19 people, including two women who said they saw the dispute in the open parking lot area, and corroborated what Castro was saying about Baker's aggressive behavior.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland released this statement following the grand jury's decision to clear one of his officers:

"We respect the grand jury's decision in this case. This is certainly a tragic and unfortunate incident for the officer involved and the family of Jordan Baker. We will continue to evaluate our policies and training in an attempt to prevent these types of incidents in the future. We are in the process of developing a new foot pursuit policy designed to protect officers and the citizens they encounter. We place the highest priority on human life and we encourage anyone that has interactions with police to follow and obey the commands and instructions of officers. There is always a proper place and time to contest your arrest or file a police complaint. I have forwarded this investigation to the local office of the FBI for its review to ensure there are no civil rights violations."

Still, Baker's supporters outside the courthouse Tuesday bristled at the grand jury's decision.

"To hand a decision down like this, 48 hours before Christmas, is unconscionable," said activist Deric Muhammad, who has acted as a spokesperson of sorts for the Baker family. "It's as if they put a non-indictment in the box, wrapped it up, put a bow on it and gave it to this mother to take home, and said Merry Christmas. That's the kind of system that we're dealing with here in Houston, Harris County."

The grand jury's decision was announced just after 1 p.m. when a large group of family and supporters poured out of the grand jury waiting area, some hand in hand. "What can I say? So much for justice; and welcome to Ferguson, Texas," Muhammad told reporters.

Earlier Tuesday morning, members of the National Black United Front protested while a phalanx of police watched near the doors to the Criminal Justice Center. After the decision was delivered, most of the protesters had gone, except for members of the Houston Justice Coalition who stuck around to support Janet Baker.

Durrell Douglas, one of the organizers with the group, said the fight for Jordan Baker wouldn't stop. "I'm not surprised; I'm disappointed, but still optimistic we can make this right. Jordan Baker's life is at least worthy of a trial."

Meanwhile, Muhammad promised to work on Baker's case through the holidays and take it further than the Harris County grand jury. He called for a federal investigation, and said lawyers in Washington, D.C., were already pursuing the matter. Muhammad said a rally and protest are planned for Monday afternoon, December 29, outside the Criminal Justice Center, with more public action to follow.

"As we always say with our protests, if there is no justice, there can be no peace. And today they handed out injustice," Muhammad said. "Don't be surprised if somebody's peace is broken. Even after the grand jury decision, Jordan's life still matters."


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