In many of Houston’s struggling neighbourhoods, a black undercover narcotics officer worked for decades, making bust after bust.
He often focused not on drug kingpins, but on those much further down the supply chain, many of them residents of public housing projects where people still dried their laundry on clotheslines. The officer, Gerald M Goines, made numerous arrests for “dime rocks” — a tiny amount of crack cocaine worth $10 (£8). Over a 30-year career, he helped send hundreds of people to jail, the majority of them African Americans.
But now, years later, many of his old cases are being looked at with new scrutiny.
Mr Goines is at the centre of one of the biggest police scandals in Houston’s history, after a botched drug raid he orchestrated led to the death of a local couple in their home in 2019. Prosecutors said Mr Goines had lied about drug transactions happening at the house in order to obtain a no-knock warrant for the raid, and that as a result, thousands of cases that he and his narcotics squad handled were under review.
So far, more than 100 people who Mr Goines helped arrest over an 11-year period are on track to have their cases dismissed and three others have either had their convictions overturned or judges have concluded that they were innocent.
One new name has emerged as a possible victim of a wrongful arrest by Mr Goines – George Floyd.
Floyd, who died after a white officer held him under his knee in Minneapolis, igniting a protest movement against police brutality, grew up in Houston and was arrested by Mr Goines in 2004 over a $10 (£8) drug transaction. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to jail.
The 2004 arrest is now being re-examined by Kim Ogg, the district attorney in Houston’s Harris County, as part of the review of the former officer’s now-questionable cases. The arrest was not the first time Floyd had run-ins with law enforcement in Houston. But it sent him to state jail for 10 months. He later moved to Minneapolis to try to turn his life around.
“His interactions with at least two policemen were quite negative – one likely led to a wrongful conviction, the other to his death in custody,” Ms Ogg said. “It’s more than a coincidence. It’s just a terrible example of how unfortunately some policemen deal with minority men. I don’t think the colour of the cop is really the problem. I think the problem is police culture.”
Prosecutors, public defenders, defence lawyers and some of those Mr Goines helped wrongfully convict said the former officer left a devastating legacy, framing people for drug deals they never made and sending them to jail on charges that hung over them for years, ruining job prospects and personal relationships.
One of them was Steven Mallet, who was arrested in 2008 and spent 10 months in the Harris County Jail. Mr Goines claimed that while he was working undercover, Mr Mallet and his brother Otis sold him $200 (£161) worth of crack cocaine out of a blue can in his brother’s truck. Last year, after their cases were reopened, judges found there was no evidence that the narcotics transaction happened and that the brothers were actually innocent.
Mr Mallet was born in the same neighbourhood where Floyd grew up, in Houston’s 3rd Ward, one of the city’s historic black communities.
“I spent 10 months in jail for nothing, behind jail bars,” said Mr Mallet, whose family lost their home in the aftermath of the brothers’ arrest. “You lose everything when you’re locked up that long. You’re starting over when you get out.”
The problems with Mr Goines’ cases came to light after last year’s botched drug raid. The officer, who has since retired, faces both state and federal charges in connection with the raid, including felony murder and tampering with a government record.
The raid happened in January 2019, when officers moved in on a house in the city’s working-class Pecan Park neighbourhood, where a Navy veteran, Dennis Tuttle, lived with his wife, Rhogena Nicholas. Officers burst into the home in the early evening, based on information that Mr Goines and confidential informants had purchased heroin at the house.
The raid went awry almost immediately. Officers shot and killed the couple’s dog, and a shootout ensued that left five officers, including Mr Goines, wounded. Tuttle was shot nine times and his wife was shot twice.
Afterwards, local and federal prosecutors said it appeared Mr Goines had lied about his drug purchase at the house and the purchases by informants.
Floyd’s case had unfolded many years earlier, in February 2004, outside a corner store across the street from the Cuney Homes public-housing complex where he was raised.
Mr Goines said in his report that he was working undercover when he pulled up near the store, slipped a man some cash for a “dime rock” of crack and watched as the man gave the money to Floyd, who was standing nearby. Floyd reached into his pants and handed the man the drugs, he said.
Floyd was arrested. Mr Goines wrote that the decision was made not to arrest the other man, who was not identified, in an “attempt to further the narcotic trafficking in this area”. His meaning was unclear, but it likely meant that Mr Goines was using the man as a confidential informant.
Floyd fought the charges. For more than five months, the case was rescheduled and delayed. Prosecutors then offered Floyd two years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea, but he declined the offer. He ultimately pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of 10 months.
“It was reset time after time after time, which may suggest that Floyd was insistent that it didn’t happen,” said Bob Wicoff, Mr Mallet’s lawyer and the chief of the post-conviction division of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, which represents others fighting convictions in cases handled by Mr Goines.
Tera Brown, a cousin of Floyd’s who was raised with him in Houston, said she was happy Ms Ogg was reviewing the 2004 arrest.
“I do think he was innocent in that case,” Ms Brown said. “I’m also looking into that issue and trying to get some resolve.”
After Floyd’s release from jail following the 2004 arrest, it was not long before he got into trouble again. He was arrested in 2008 for his role in a home-invasion robbery. A group of men forced their way into a home seeking drugs and money, and one of the victims “tentatively identified” Floyd as the man who pointed a pistol at her abdomen, according to court documents.
Floyd pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. After serving four years in state prison, Floyd was released in 2013.
Ms Brown, Floyd’s cousin who grew up with him, said the 10 months her cousin spent in jail after his arrest by Mr Goines had a lingering effect on him and his relatives.
“I know it impacted him and it impacted the family because he was away, and nobody wants to be locked away in jail for something that they didn’t do,” Ms Brown said. “There were some important holiday and birthday events he missed because he wasn’t with the family.”
After his release from an East Texas prison in 2013, Floyd returned to Houston and started rebuilding his life — reconnecting with his children, getting involved in church and speaking out against crime and violence in the 3rd Ward.
“His story is a redemption story,” said Patrick Ngwolo, the pastor of Resurrection Houston, a church that Floyd worked with to organise basketball court services. “He was telling the folk who were on the streets — he was a father figure to them and telling them, ‘Hey, this is not the way. We’re trying to do something different'. He was convincing some of them that there was a better way to do it, and he was living proof that you could do it.”
Overall, prosecutors intend to dismiss the cases of 151 people whose convictions relied on evidence from Mr Goines, if the criminal appeals court approves, and more dismissals are likely as the investigation continues.
Lawyers said it was not surprising that people had pleaded guilty to crimes they may not have committed. According to court documents, Mr Mallet said that while he was in jail, he rejected an early plea offer because he did not want to lie and say he was guilty, and that he eventually pleaded guilty because he wanted to get out of jail and would receive credit for time served as part of the deal.
“What are they supposed to do, when it’s one officer against you, and the officer says that’s what happened, and you say: ‘No, it’s not’?” said Celeste Blackburn, who represented another defendant whose conviction was overturned in the review of Mr Goines’ cases.
No one has determined whether Floyd’s arrest was improper. Houston prosecutors last year notified Floyd and his lawyer from the 2004 case that Mr Goines was under criminal investigation, but Floyd probably did not receive the letter. It was sent to an old Houston address and he had already moved to Minneapolis, and his lawyer had died in 2015. Ms Ogg said that prosecutors would likely have agreed to throw out his conviction had Floyd contacted them.
“Gerald Goines was the only witness to the alleged crime,” Ms Ogg said. “And we’ve already determined that Gerald Goines’ credibility is bad, that he’s a liar and that we know he frames people for crimes.”
New York Times
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