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Grand Jury Acquits HPD Cop Who Killed Unarmed, Disabled, Mentally Ill Houston Man

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On Monday, a grand jury declined to indict the Houston police officer who in September shot and killed Brian Claunch, a mentally ill, wheelchair-bound double amputee, for refusing to drop a pen.

HPD Officer Matthew Marin and his partner had responded to a disturbance call at Healing Hands, a small residential group home in central Houston for men with mental illness. Claunch, 45, suffered from schizophrenia and was agitated because he wanted a soda and cigarettes. Police say he yelled threats at the officers and backed Marin’s partner into a corner while waving something shiny, which turned out to be a ballpoint pen. When Claunch wouldn’t drop the shiny object, Marin killed him with one shot.

The case sparked international outrage. Why didn’t Marin use a Taser? HPD has a nationally-recognized crisis intervention team for handling suspects with mental illness—why wasn’t it there? How did Marin’s partner get cornered by a man with only one arm to propel his wheelchair?

Most important, if Claunch’s death isn’t considered an unjustified use of lethal force by HPD officers, what is?

Statistically, nothing.

Between 2007 and 2012, HPD officers killed citizens in 109 shootings and injured them in 112. Houston police also killed animals in 225 shootings and injured them in 109. The department’s Internal Affairs Division investigated every one of the 555 shootings and found them all justified.

Officers fare almost as well in the criminal justice system. No law enforcement officer in Harris County has been charged in a shooting since 2010, when Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton was acquitted for shooting an unarmed man, Robbie Tolan, in his own front yard.

HPD says Internal Affairs is still investigating whether Claunch’s death was justified. That’s odd because IAD investigations are required to wrap within six months and Claunch died almost nine months ago. Investigations that exceed the time limit void their results and can’t be grounds for any discipline, which is how one of the officers fired for beating 15-year-old unarmed burglary suspect Chad Holley got his job back.

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating six questionable use-of-force cases by HPD officers, including Claunch’s death, Chad Holley’s beating, and the shooting death of Rufino Lara, an unarmed 54-year-old immigrant whom the officer said was ignoring commands in English and Spanish and made a threatening motion. Witnesses say the officer only gave commands in English and that Lara had his hands up and was complying when he was shot.

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic,, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.

  • Christin Palmedo

    Life is cheap in Texas. They seemed to have never left the age of Judge Roy Bean

    • dickerin

      Judge Roy Bean had more common sense and compassion than is used at the HPD these days.

  • Nataly Carbonell

    I guess in a moment like this, one does not think properly and will do anythiing to try to save a life. I guess this is what happened to this cop? Who really knows?

    • Naomi Layton

      save a life they killed someone

  • Naomi Layton

    In the June Issue of The Texas Observer two stories of mentally disable people were shot and killed isn’t that two to many or how many will lose their lives before someone does something about it

  • SoberMoney

    As the saying goes: “It’s the capitalist police state, stupid.”

    In other words, the police mostly exist to protect the fruits of capitalism, not the safety and human rights of people.”

    • dickerin

      Unfortunately, the ‘good cops’ usually stick up for the ‘bad cops’.

  • Carcinogen


  • Davis Rivas

    What else is new. If I point a banana at a cop, I’d probably be dead within 5s with 20 rounds in my chest.

  • Kirston

    Great article, as always, Emily.