by Jayson Hawkins
In October 2016, Frederick Jeffery was arrested for possession of two-and-a-half grams of methamphetamine, which he repeatedly stated did not belong to him. As a person with prior convictions, he knew it was a huge risk to go to trial, but he stood by his claims of innocence. At the trial, a narcotics officer gave sworn testimony linking Jeffery to drugs that were found during the execution of a search warrant. For the Houston jury, that testimony was enough to convict Jeffery and sentence him to 25 years as a habitual offender.
Ordinarily, guilt or innocence would have faded to insignificance in an appeals process heavily weighted against prisoners and more concerned with the appearance of procedural propriety than justice, but in this case, the narcotics officer who testified against Jeffery was about to become the focus of an investigation that would call hundreds of drug convictions into question.
Officer Gerald Goines was a 30-year veteran of the Houston Police Department (“HPD”) when he obtained a warrant for the “no-knock” search of a house on Harding Street in January 2019. The warrant was based on drug-buys allegedly performed by an informant, C.I. #5696, the same one Goines utilized to get the warrant that led to Jeffery’s arrest. The Harding Street raid was a disaster that ended in the deaths of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, a couple accused of selling heroin.
Soon after the raid, facts emerged to call the basis of the warrant into question, and before long, local media uncovered the truth — there was no heroin sale. The warrant rested on lies that resulted in the killing of two innocent people. The questions immediately following this revelation raised doubts about Goines’ long career and extensive use of “C.I. #5696.” The answers led to Goines leaving HPD while multiple prisoners brought challenges to convictions based on his testimony.
Jeffery’s case provided startling evidence of how Goines could easily and effectively taint the legal process from beginning to end. In a sworn affidavit to obtain the search warrant that led to Jeffery’s arrest, Goines stated that an informant had purchased marijuana at a house on Nettleton Street from a Black male known as “B.” Yet when asked by the Harris County District Attorney three years later, the informant stated that she had never made a buy on that street and that she got paid by Goines for some buys she did not actually make.
When Goines and another officer executed the warrant, Jeffery was standing on the lawn. Goines testified that he had seen Jeffery lock the burglar bars covering the front door and then throw the keys into the grass. He also stated that he had recovered the keys at the scene, but no keys were entered into evidence.
Inside the house, Goines found amphetamine on a table. He later testified that Jeffery asked for his cellphone, which was near the drugs on the table. This link between Jeffery, phone, and drugs was critical to establishing ownership of the drugs.
But Jeffrey denied ever asking for a phone, and because the officers did not turn on their body cameras, there is no record of the conversation. In later video taken as Jeffery and another man were being transported to jail, the other suspect says the phone is his while Jeffery denies having a phone at all. Investigators never attempted to trace the phone back to a specific owner.
This evidence was given to Jeffery’s lawyer before the trial, and during the trial itself, photos taken inside the house by Goines and other officers failed to show a phone anywhere on the table in question. These discrepancies were not brought out by Jeffery’s attorney during the trial, and the jury convicted him almost exclusively on Goines’ testimony, as Goines was the only person who saw him with the missing keys, the only person who claimed the keys fit the lock on the house, the only person who saw the phone next to the drugs, and the only person who heard Jeffery assert ownership of the phone.
The 25-year sentence that the jury handed Jeffery was almost certain to survive any post-conviction challenge, but then the Harding Street raid happened. Investigations after that raid revealed a pattern of widespread sloppy police work and outright fraud in HPD’s Narcotics Division. As a result, Goines and 11 other officers have been charged with various crimes, including the murder of the two victims at Harding Street.
The Houston Chronicle reported soon after that “Prosecutors dismissed dozens of Goines’ cases and began reviewing thousands of Goines’ past convictions.” These reviews have so far turned up five cases egregious enough to convince the district attorney’s office to recommend that the convictions be reversed.
Jeffery’s case is one of these, and on July 21, 2022, nearly six years after his arrest, Judge Stacy M. Allen recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reverse Jeffery’s conviction because it resulted from “a pattern of deceit involving fictional drug buys, perjured search warrant affidavits, and false testimony to a jury.… Confidence in the criminal justice system cannot tolerate such behavior.”
Even though Jeffery’s victory is a victory for justice, the fact remains that the system did tolerate Goines and his colleagues for decades. How widespread this type of behavior is remains unclear, but some experts have long asserted that it is ubiquitous, especially in drug enforcement.
Peter Keane, a former San Francisco Police Commissioner and current law professor at Golden Gate University said in 2011 that “One of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the criminal justice system is undercover narcotics officers intentionally lying under oath. It is a perversion of the American justice system that strikes directly at the rule of law. Yet it is the routine way of doing business in courtrooms everywhere in America.”
Yet, this reality does not seem to sway jurors who routinely return guilty verdicts based on a single officer’s account of the facts — even though scandals like the one in Houston have surfaced in cities across the U.S., including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
While the nuts and bolts of a typical narcotics case will often rest on the ethical behavior of officers, Jeffery’s case illustrates many points that could improve the system. Mandating that body cams must be on at all times is a critical start, but the unfettered use of unverifiable testimony from confidential informants must be reformed to bring both transparency and accountability into the system. This critical need is exemplified by the results of a local media investigation into “no-knock” warrants obtained by Goines between 2012 and 2016. In all these cases, Goines swore the no-knock warrants were necessary because an informant saw a gun inside, but not a single gun was found in any of these cases.
Without these reforms, people like Frederick Jeffery will continue to suffer when caught in the grip of the criminal justice system, and other citizens will stand in the same jeopardy as the couple who slept peacefully before police broke down their door on Harding Street.
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