Anita Hassan, The Houston Chronicle
The Harris County Sheriff’s Civil Service Commission on Thursday upheld the termination of a veteran homicide sergeant who admitted having sex with a witness in the slaying last year of fellow Deputy Darren Goforth, rejecting his remorseful request for a lesser sanction.
A three-member commission panel took just 15 minutes to unanimously back former Sgt. Craig Clopton’s firing after the detective testified during a 2½-hour hearing that he was off duty when he had sex with the witness two weeks after Goforth was gunned down during an unprovoked attack at a gas station.
Clopton, a 24-year veteran, expressed remorse and acknowledged bad judgment but testified that he was off duty at the time he had sex with the witness.
“I should be punished for that, but not to the level of ending my career,” he said, adding that he was willing to accept any punishment the commission deemed appropriate.
Clopton said he would not have appealed his termination if he had committed the act while on duty.
“Had I knowingly done this while I was on duty, I would not even be here; I would have just walked away,” he said.
Maj. Clint Greenwood, who oversees the Harris County sheriff ’s Internal Affairs Division, testified that it would never be appropriate for an investigator to have sex with a witness at any time.
Deputies and investigators should have known that even before Sheriff Ron Hickman implemented a policy in February expressly prohibiting them from engaging in such conduct during criminal investigations, Greenwood said.
“That is so patently obvious, it wasn’t thought that we had to put ‘don’t have sex with a witness or any kind of relationship’ ” into policy, he said.
Even if the relationship had not become sexual, it likely still would have led to termination, he said.
Both Clopton’s lawyer, Carson Joachim, and an assistant county attorney representing the sheriff ’s office steered away from going over specific details of Clopton’s misconduct or Goforth’s slaying on Aug. 28, 2015. Authorities arrested Shannon Miles, 31, and later charged him with capital murder in the 47-year-old deputy’s death.
About two weeks after the shooting, prosecutors revealed that awoman who witnessed the shooting had been having an affair with Goforth. Clopton was assigned to interview her and subsequently admitted having sex with her on Sept. 10, according to a disciplinary notice sent to Clopton. The Chronicle obtained the notice through a public records request.
Clopton went to the woman’s residence, where they had coffee, made small talk and engaged in consensual sex, the notice said.
Hickman ultimately fired two more deputies who also allegedly had inappropriate conduct with the same witness.
Nick Turner, the assistant county attorney, said during the hearing that Clopton was on duty when he had sex with the witness. He said Clopton went to the witness’ home around 9 a.m. that day, despite the fact that his timecard stated he started his shift an hour before that.
Clopton insisted that he was not on duty. He said that while his timecard said 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., most homicide investigators do not work regular hours. Investigators routinely adjust their hours to work when they’re needed and do not generally note the changes, unless it required overtime approval, he said.
“It was an accepted practice by everybody that ever worked in homicide,” he said.
Turner also argued that Clopton’s misconduct could compromise pending murder cases that the former detective worked on.
Joachim said his client had recently testified in a murder case in which he took a confession from a suspect. That defendant was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The prosecutor in the case, Nathan Hennigan, testified that even knowing what Clopton had been terminated for, he would have no qualms about using him as a witness in future cases.
“If his testimony was necessary to the prosecution of my case, I would call him again,” he said, adding that he’d always found Clopton to be a truthful man.
During closing arguments, Turner acknowledged that Clopton’s record during his time with sheriff’s office was spotless before he had sex with the witness.
“This stain, though, blots out all the good work he did before,” he said.
Clopton, who testified twice totaling about an hour, repeatedly expressed remorse.
“This whole incident has tarnished my image to a lot of what people looked up to me for, and I truly regret that, but I do stand behind what I did as my own mistake,” he said, his voice catching slightly. “I regret that.”
R. Todd Bennett, one of the civil service commissioners, thanked both sides for their arguments before announcing that he would be joining his colleagues in rendering a unanimous decision. He stressed how much he disliked having to make the decision but agreed with Hickman’s decision to fire Clopton.
“I thank you very much for your years of service,” he told Clopton. “I wish very much that you didn’t make the decision you did. None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes, but when you’re in the position that you’re in, Mr. Clopton, the public expects more.”