Thursday, October 22, 2020

Four stories let public peer into soul of Houston justice system

The justice system can be difficult to understand for experts and darn near impossible for laypeople. Grits believes that's in part because the public best understands issues of crime, punishment and justice through storytelling. But there are too many stories emerging from the system which often seem to produce contradictory moral conclusions. Which story one latches onto may tell more about the storyteller (or the listener) than the system. Yet at the same time, the stories are important and without them, the public can't comprehend what's happening and drowns in a sea of policy recommendations.

Many of the most difficult dynamics facing the 21st-century justice system are revealed through the lenses of four black Houston men's tragic stories making recent headlines: Houston PD Sgt. Harold Preston, shot down after 41 years on the force while responding to a domestic dispute; Narcotics Detective Gerald Goines, whose false affidavit resulted in the deaths of two innocent homeowners; George Floyd, whose death in Minneapolis was preceded by numerous run-ins with Houston PD, including a drug conviction in which he was possibly set up by Detective Goines; and Lydell Grant, a Houston man convicted of murder and exonerated by DNA and the confession of the real killer, but whose innocence the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refuses to acknowledge.

The justice system in Houston isn't just one of these stories, it's all of them. (And many more, but these are all particularly iconic.) There are good cops like Sgt. Preston who touched many lives and are a credit to their badges. But the same department provided tolerance and succor to Detective Goines and a sizable cohort of allegedly corrupt cops at an HPD Narcotics Division that arguably should be shut down. Telling either story without acknowledging the other provides an incomplete perspective.

Like Sgt. Preston, George Floyd grew up in the Third Ward and attended Jack Yates High School. The Washington Post has published an excellent series titled "George Floyd's America" which does a better job than I could showing how the justice system, Houston schools, and segregated housing layered together to present virtually insurmountable barriers for Floyd and generations of youth just like him.

Then there's Lydell Grant: Falsely convicted despite a legitimate alibi, based on multiple eyewitnesses' testimony which DNA results later contradicted. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wants the witnesses re-questioned, even though DNA evidence contradicted their recollections and the person the DNA matched has confessed to the crime! In essence, Texas' court system would rather uphold a bad conviction than free an innocent man, and it's hardly the first time.

Each of these men's stories reveals unheralded truths about the justice system. George Floyd's sad saga reminds us that it's a short step from institutional racism to terrible, negative outcomes for individual black folks. Lydell Grant's story reinforces the folly of assuming the justice system will seek or embrace just outcomes. Gerald Goines' ignominious apologue highlights the reality that law enforcement appears to tolerate bad actors in its midst, often for many decades. And Sgt. Preston's story reminds us that plenty of cops went into the business for the right reasons and there's still much good to be done in that role.

All of those things can be true at once. Focusing on any one story misses the big picture, while failing to acknowledge individuals' stories misses the most compelling aspect for the public. Today, Grits encourages you to think about four of them.

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