by Jeffrey L. Boney
Special to the NNPA from the Houston Forward Times
In a story reported by the Associated Press, they cited two major issues – the ongoing debate surrounding the use of Texas grand jury shooting simulators and an investigation by the Houston Chronicle last year that found that Harris County grand juries have cleared Houston police officers in shootings 288 consecutive times since 2004.
Unfortunately, it is time to add another police shooting and killing to that list.
This past Tuesday, December 23rd, a Harris County grand jury decided not to indict Houston Police Department (HPD) officer Juvenito Castro for his role in the January 2014 shooting death of unarmed 26-year-old Jordan Baker. The decision proved to be a very painful and overwhelming one for Baker’s mother, Janet, as she was notified of the decision.
“I am extremely disappointed, heartbroken and in disbelief,” said Janet Baker. “I hope Jordan is proud of my efforts and is somewhere smiling at the support he has received from everyone.”
For community activist Deric Muhammad, the grand jury decision adds fuel to the fire of an already fractured relationship with law enforcement and a criminal justice system that is intensely burning at the core.
“Welcome to Ferguson, TX,” said Muhammad. “The ‘no-bill’ of Officer Castro was actually a ‘true-bill’ for Houston/Harris County who is guilty of depriving the family of Jordan Baker their right to see Jordan’s killer come before a jury of his peers. What they actually gave Janet Baker and her family was ‘gift-wrapped injustice’ and they did it 48 hours before Christmas.”
Several Houston protest rallies were held in response to the grand jury decision.
On December 26th, a major protest was held in front of Houston Police Department headquarters to demand answers for the shooting death of Jordan Baker.
Another massive demonstration was held on December 29th, where hundreds of people gathered in front of the Harris County District Attorney’s office to express their disappointment with everything from the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Castro; the handling of the overall case by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office; the lack of respect given to Jordan’s mother; and a major issue that has caused a huge stir in the Houston community.
Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson released a letter from her office, and on her letterhead, that was dated for December 22nd, the day before the grand jury decision “not to indict” Officer Castro. The actual grand jury decision was not announced until the following day – December 23rd. The district attorney’s office has stated that the date difference was an error – merely a typo. Others disagree. Muhammad says that the DA’s office purposely delayed the announcement in order to disrespect the mother and make it difficult to organize a proper protest response in front of the courthouse because of the Christmas holiday.
“If the grand jury made their decision on December 23rd, then why is the D.A.’s letter dated December 22nd,” said Muhammad. “I believe and I think it is sickening, that the D.A.’s office may have deceived the Baker family, concerned citizens and the media into thinking a decision was still pending when they had already made up their minds all along.”
On January 16th, Jordan, an African American college student, was riding his bike through the Northwest Houston strip mall where Officer Castro was working an off-duty security job due to a recent string of recent burglaries in the area.
According to police reports, Officer Castro, an 11-year veteran, mistakenly pegged Jordan as a burglar because he was allegedly looking into local businesses and because he was wearing a black hoodie. Castro claimed that he was on the lookout for hoodie-wearing armed robbery suspects and believed Jordan matched the description of one of the three robbers who all wore black hoodies and had recently held up three stores at the strip mall.
According to police reports, Officer Castro approached Jordan and asked to see his identification, to which the officer claims Jordan began to scuffle with him and eventually ran away. Officer Castro claimed that a foot chase ensued, to which the officer caught up with Jordan and cornered him in an alley behind the strip mall. Castro told investigators that Jordan lunged at him and charged towards him, prompting him to discharge his weapon, firing the one shot that killed Baker.
Immediately after the shooting, and well before Jordan was named as the victim, police were sharing a narrative with the media that Castro had killed Jordan because he was a suspect in the recent string of robberies. Castro, who was the only witness to the shooting death, was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation, which eventually led to these grand jury proceedings.
Since that time, it has been a waiting game for Baker’s mother, Janet Baker.
According to Janet, members of law enforcement and the Harris County District Attorney’s office had been extremely non-responsive to her requests to get updates on the investigation and to find out if the case involving Officer Castro would even go before a grand jury.
It wasn’t until Janet attended a town hall meeting held at the Community of Faith in early December that she had the opportunity to directly address Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, who was a member of the panel that evening. Janet told Anderson it had been nearly a year since her son was killed and that she had received no significant updates or answers from the D.A.’s office about her son’s death. Anderson promised to follow up with her on the case involving her son, but Deric Muhammad, who was also on the panel that evening, decided to connect with Janet to assist her and to make sure Anderson followed through on her promise.
The promise to follow up with Janet on her son’s case was honored. However, getting an indictment against the officer who killed her son was something Anderson failed to deliver.
Muhammad, along with Janet and other community activists, are demanding a federal investigation and vow to continue their pursuit for justice, well beyond the grand jury decision.
“The National Black United Front (NBUF) is not surprised by the ‘no-bill’ of Officer Castro,” said NBUF National Chairman Kofi Taharka. “We would have been surprised if he (Castro) had been indicted. Either way, we will continue to organize and focus on dismantling this unjust system built on a foundation of Global White Supremacy and racism.”
Jordan Baker, who was a student at Houston Community College at the time he was killed, was seeking to improve his life so that he could continue to provide for and be a role-model to his then-7-year-old son, Jordan, who is named after him. Janet says that her grandson has had an extremely tough time dealing with the loss of his father and is seeking healing through remembering the fond memories of his father.
“This is our first Christmas without Jordan, and it is the first Christmas my grandson has to celebrate Christmas without his father,” said Janet. “As much as my heart hurts, I’m looking forward to taking my son’s case to the highest level possible in order to get justice for Jordan.”
Mary Tolan, mother of Bellaire shooting victim Robbie Tolan, offered her support for Janet on the day of the grand jury decision and took the opportunity to speak out against the same system that saw the Bellaire police officer who shot her son avoid accountability for his actions that nearly cost him his life.
Unlike Jordan, Robbie Tolan survived his ordeal, but the outcome could have been far worse for Robbie, considering he was racially profiled and was the victim of mistaken identity.
Ironically, Jordan’s story mirrors that of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon was killed by neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman, who racially profiled and suspected him of being a criminal. Like Jordan, Trayvon was wearing a hoodie and was in an area being patrolled by someone who was on the lookout for criminals. These two young, African American men lost their lives because of mistaken identity and ironically, both Jordan and Trayvon share the same birthday – February 5.
“Jordan was racially profiled and was considered a criminal,” said Janet. “My son had every right to be where he was. My son was unarmed and did not deserve to die. I believe that justice delayed is not justice denied.”
As the number of unarmed African American shooting and murder victims continues to climb, at the hands of law enforcement officials, without any accountability, there is tremendous reason for concern; and to have those officers fail to be indicted, 289 consecutive times, there is room for even more concern.
These police killings have opened up the floodgates of discussion about race, grand juries and the negative perception problem that society has about African Americans. The overarching perception that many officers and grand juries seem to have is that young Black men are traditionally the overly aggressive ones who are inherently up to no good.
Sadly, most police shootings of unarmed Black men tend to turn out the same way – police officers are put on administrative leave; a grand jury is convened and fails to indict a police officer; and the police officer returns to his or her job and seemingly gets away with a slap on the wrist or no punishment at all.
Many community activists are making the argument that body cameras are not the only solution to this epidemic and they cite Rodney King, Chad Holley and most recently Eric Garner as prime examples of how acts of police brutality even caught on video camera can lead to a non-indictment by a grand jury.
Because the grand jury proceedings are secretive and not made public, we will never know why the grand jury decided not to indict Officer Castro, as we will never know about the other previous cases. What we do know is that there are many similarities surrounding the unarmed shooting deaths of Black men in this country; one being that the officers say they were in fear of their lives and the other being the grand jury process helped the officers avoid any accountability for their actions.
Since the United States adopted its grand jury system from England, this secret gathering of select citizens are supposed to decide whether there is enough evidence to warrant a trial and not decide whether a suspect is guilty or innocent.
As we look at the consistent pattern of outcomes from the grand juries across the United States and right here in Harris County, one could ask whether these grand juries are doing both.