The family of Rhogena Nicholas is one step closer to uncovering the truth about what happened during the botched drug raid last year during which Houston Police Department officers shot and killed both Nicholas and her husband in their home.
On Monday, Harris County Probate Court Judge Jerry Simoneaux set a hearing for November 13 to respond to a request from the Nicholas family’s legal team to depose HPD officers who managed the department’s narcotics unit that shot and killed Nicholas, her husband Dennis Tuttle and their dog in January 2019.
City officials have for months tried to delay the hearing over claims that the county’s probate court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to grant permission for the HPD depositions the Nicholas family wants, even though similar wrongful death cases are definitely within its scope of authority.
“They basically claimed that the court which handles wrongful death cases didn’t have jurisdiction to consider a wrongful death investigation case,” said Michael Doyle, one of the attorneys representing the Nicholas family. “That’s why the Court of Appeals kicked it out very quickly, because that’s kind of silly,” he continued, referring to the Texas Fourteenth District Court of Appeals ruling on March 26 to allow Doyle’s investigation to go forward.
After that ruling, city lawyers asked the state supreme court to intervene. On Friday, the state’s highest court rejected that request, allowing Simoneaux to finally schedule the hearing.
“Our family’s search for the truth of what happened to Rhogena will continue — no matter what,” said her brother John Nicholas in a statement. “Once again, she did not deserve to be executed in her own home by the Houston Police Department. The mayor and chief of police still owe our family an explanation. We’re not going away.”
In July 2019, Doyle filed a petition on behalf of the Nicholas family in Harris County Probate Court seeking sworn depositions from HPD officers who managed HPD Narcotics Squad 15, the unit responsible for the raid. If the investigation’s findings warrant it, Doyle said the Nicholas family may sue the City of Houston for civil damages for infringing on Nicholas’ civil rights based on how the raid was carried out.
HPD has been roundly criticized for the past 20 months over its handling of the raid that killed Nicholas and Tuttle, which was based on reportedly fake evidence from a fictional informant that painted the married couple as heroin dealers, even though the only drugs found in their Harding Street home were small amounts of cocaine and marijuana.
Two former HPD officers, Gerald Goines and Steven Bryant, are awaiting trial in federal court after being indicted for their role in the raid, and the Harris County District Attorney's office announced multiple charges against several other officers involved in the raid back in July.
Last summer, the Nicholas family hired Doyle and a team of lawyers to help them get to the bottom of the circumstances surrounding the fatal raid after they were left unsatisfied with HPD’s story about what happened that night, including HPD’s claim that officers only shot Nicholas after she allegedly tried to grab an officer’s gun.
Doyle’s petition cited an independent forensic investigation on the raid site led by former Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent Michael Maloney, which concluded the bullet that killed Nicholas was actually fired from outside of the house by an unidentified HPD officer and struck Nicholas while she was sitting on a couch. If true, Maloney’s findings definitely contradict HPD’s narrative about how the shooting unfolded.
“Art Acevedo has claimed, even since we released this stuff, no evidence of friendly fire, but that’s not what it looks like from the stuff that was abandoned on the scene by the forensic folks who were there that day,” Doyle said.
Doyle thinks it’s clear the city, HPD and Police Chief Art Acevedo are trying to prevent the full story about how Nicholas and Tuttle were killed from getting out based on their repeated attempts to delay the hearing.
“I think every step they’ve taken has been to keep back the truth. I think that’s pretty clear,” he said.