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Harding Street investigation and questions surrounding 'probable cause'

HOUSTON – It’s been nearly a week since Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced murder charges against former Houston Police Department narcotics Officer Gerald Goines and a charge of tampering with a government document against former Officer Steven Bryant.

In the hours following the bombshell announcement, HPD Chief Art Acevedo held a news conference that lasted nearly 30 minutes. Acevedo told the city: "We didn't need to lie. We could have done this right." The chief also stated, "When somebody lies to obtain a search warrant, that's a problem."

However, Acevedo made one thing clear regarding the question of probable cause: "I stand by that, we had probable cause to be there."

However, in a one-on-one interview with Channel 2 Investigates, Ogg said: "Our government should not have intervened in that home, and two people are dead as a result. Yes, I believe that the victims' families are owed justice."  

Ogg said her office will pursue justice for Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas in what she calls an unprecedented search for the truth. She made it clear when she announced charges that she has “not seen a case like this in my 30-plus years of practicing law."

The felony murder charges against a now-retired Houston Police Department narcotics officer are not seen very often, according to former police Officer Phil Stinson. He said, "It's actually very rare."

Stinson is also a criminologist with the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green University in Ohio. "The fact of the matter is, the police generally are the good guys, and we don't like to think of police officers as being criminals," said Stinson.

According to data from Stinson's group, since 2005, 107 police officers have been arrested on suspicion of murder or manslaughter in a case where the officer shot and killed someone. However, the Harding Street case stands out even more since Goines did not fire the deadly shots, according to Ogg. "Members of his squad shot and killed Rhogena Nicholas, Dennis Tuttle and their dog," said Ogg. 

This puts Goines in very small company as only a handful of officers who have faced similar charges, according to Stinson. Another intriguing statistic, according to the Police Integrity Research Group, is only four officers have been convicted out of the 107 total cases since 2005. "These are not easy cases for prosecutors to obtain convictions, but it is more likely that a conviction would be obtained given the nature of the charge in this case," said Stinson. 

Meanwhile, Harris County prosecutors continue to build their case with the key questions of motive still unclear. That said, Acevedo will not back down from his assertion that officers had a right to enter the Harding Street home.

On Feb. 15, Acevedo told Channel 2 Investigates: "It's really important for the community to realize we still had a reason to be at that home. We should not draw final conclusions, as disturbing as it is, until we discover every single investigative lead.” When asked at the time that although he indicated HPD had reason to be at that home, it appeared there was no reason listed in the affidavit. “But remember, that affidavit is but one piece of a very comprehensive investigation," said Acevedo. 

Last Friday, Channel 2 asked Acevedo about the comments he made Friday. Acevedo quickly responded, "I stand by that, we had probable cause to be there."

We posed the question of probable cause to Ogg, who said, "I will tell you at this time, the probable cause to obtain the search warrant was false.”  Channel 2 Investigates then asked, “Should they (HPD) have been in the home?” Ogg, without hesitation, said, “Not based on the warrant they had."

Last Friday, minutes after making his position on probable cause quite clear, the chief also acknowledged that dishonesty to the court will ruin a case. "You just don't get to lie to the court. You don't get to lie in court documents. It throws everything out," said Acevedo.

A lie is what Ogg says was the basis for securing the warrant. "They had a warrant that was based on false information, and so the forced entry into that home was based on a lie."

Ogg says he expects jury trials for Goines and Bryant as she cannot imagine her office making a plea offer either Goines or Bryant will take.