13 Undercover fights for grand jurors' identities

March 18, 2011 6:58:14 AM PDT
There are tough words for a Houston criminal judge who doesn't want you to know who was on a controversial grand jury It's now infamous, the video detailing the beating of a burglary susupect by HPD officers. The district attorney fought its release. Now the courthouse doesn't want you to know who was on the grand jury.

The video stunned the city. Four Houston cops await trial.

"I released it and I didn't steal it," Quanell X said at a town hall meeting last month. "I got it the right way."

But at a crowded NAACP town hall meeting last month, the DA's office faced a very tough crowd.

"You all don't have a good track record for convicting cops of nothing in Harris County," Quanell X said at the meeting.

The criminal charge in the Holley case is official oppression. That's just a misdemeanor.

"If I wear a uniform and I come into your store and make you give me a hamburger because I'm in uniform and me beating a suspect who is handcuffed and that gets the same charge -- I think everybody in Houston should be appalled of that," said Rev. DZ Coffield, the president of the Houston NAACP.

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos didn't face the crowd that night. She let her top assistant try to explain.

"You have to find out from the grand jury 'cause they had all those decision before them but they make the case," First Harris County District Attorney Jim Leitner said during the meeting.

We tried to take Mr. Leitner up on his suggestion, asking the district attorney's office for the names of the grand jurors who can better explain. The county has routinely provided the names before.

Joe Larsen is a lawyer specializing in the public's right to know.

"The names of the grand jurors are announced in open court when they are empanelled," Larsen said.

But after we asked, the district attorney's office notified the judge over the grand jury, Vanessa Velasquez.

Two days after our request, the judge issued an order barring any county employee from releasing the names. The DA's office now says its hands are now tied. The names of the grand jurors could be secret forever.

"I'm extremely dismayed. I think this subverts the Public Information Act on its face," Larsen said.

Imagine the reaction in an already frustrated African-American community. First, they fight to keep the video secret, now the names of the grand jury.

"I really think it's a dangerous precedent that the judge is setting," Coffield said.

"A grand jury should not be kept so secret," Quanell X said. Activist Quanell X gave the Holley video to Channel 13 and has long complained about the makeup of the grand jury.

"It says that they were worried and scared to death of what Channel 13 would find out," Quanell X said. "That judge is a disgrace to the robe and the bench."

Judge Velasquez did not return our phone calls, and Lykos didn't talk to us either. Her office issued a written statement:

"We have consistently acted in good faith while trying to accomplish the difficult task of balancing public transparency against the privacy rights of persons who may be the subject of public records."

Well that fight is now in the hands of the Texas attorney general, but if the judge's order is allowed to stand, don't be surprised to see other judges do it, too.

"The system of justice, transparency and equality in the criminal courthouse here in Harris County will be nothing more than farce, a con game in the name of justice," Quanell X said.

Click here to see the court documents sealing the Holley grand jury.
Click here to see the district attorney's office letter to me.