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Houston Homicide Under New Scrutiny After Misconduct Allegations About DEA Agent Emerge

In 2000, Lamar Burks was convicted of murder and given a 70-year sentence. But the federal indictment of a DEA agent and witnesses who say Burks is innocent have raised new questions about his case.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Darwin Brandis/Getty Images.

At around 2 a.m. on June 30, 1997, Officer Mike Perales was patrolling Houston’s notoriously rough Fifth Ward when he observed what seemed like a hundreds-strong crowd gathered in the parking lot of T’s restaurant. As his cruiser rolled closer to the small cinder block building, Officer Perales sensed a commotion. As he exited his vehicle and approached the scene, he heard what sounded like 10 to 12 gunshots.

The crowd outside T’s scattered, nearly stampeding Perales who retreated behind his car and called for help. A couple of minutes later, after things had calmed down, Perales approached T’s and saw the lifeless body of Earl Perry just outside its front door.

Perry, a Fifth Ward resident, was on the ground with blood, bullet casings, and a die strewn on the gravel around him. According to the Harris County medical examiner’s report, Perry was shot four times. The fatal shot struck him in the back and pierced his left lung and heart; he was pronounced dead at the scene.

Several months later, Lamar Burks, a local music producer known in the community’s hip-hop scene, was charged with murder in the shooting. But the case was dropped after a key witness couldn’t be located. The following year, in 1998, that witness, Kevin Scales, signed an affidavit stating that he was “mistaken when I told the police that the person who did the shooting was Lamar Burks.”  

In 2000, however, Harris County prosecutors were able to develop new evidence to present to the grand jury, including another witness who could implicate Burks. Law enforcement arrested him again. That same year, another man, Clayton “T.T.” Brown, pleaded guilty to murder in the case and also gave investigators a detailed description of his unnamed accomplice, a man who left a baseball cap and his own blood at the scene.

The state’s witness issues 

Despite the state’s myriad problems with its witnesses, Burks went on trial for Perry’s murder in October 2000. Harris County prosecutors said Brown and Burks got in an argument with Perry over a dice game outside T’s and then pulled out handguns and shot Perry to death.

But Brown was never called to testify against Burks, and Scales disappeared even though a material witness warrant was issued for him. Material witness warrants can be used to force a person to testify in court if law enforcement believes that person has knowledge of a crime; such warrants have come under increasing scrutiny as they are used by prosecutors to detain witnesses and victims alike and even coerce false testimony. Instead of using Brown or Scales, prosecutors had an investigator testify over the defense’s objections about the issuance of a material witness warrant for Scales.

The state’s sole eyewitness at trial was Derevin Whitaker, a multiple-time convicted felon who was originally charged in the shooting of Perry. Just before Burks’s trial, however, the charges against Whitaker were dismissed, according to court records. The prosecutor in Burks’s case said Whitaker had proved his innocence.

Then Whitaker, a longtime friend of Burks, became the star witness against him. He told the jury that he was hanging out with Burks at T’s the night of Perry’s murder. Whitaker said he was talking with a woman in the restaurant’s parking lot when he saw Burks pull a handgun from his waistband and let a round go in Perry’s direction.

Burks’s defense attorney tried to convince the jury that Whitaker couldn’t be trusted because he changed his story each time he spoke to the police. In fact, the first time police approached Whitaker, he said he wasn’t at T’s that night at all and had nothing to do with the shooting, according to a Houston police investigator who testified at Burks’s trial. During another interview, the officer said, Whitaker admitted to being present at the time of the offense but that he turned his head after he heard the shots and then saw that Perry had been hit.

Burks’s lawyer suggested that Whitaker struck a deal to get time cut from a drug sentence he was serving at the time of the trial in exchange for his testimony against Burks. Whitaker acknowledged writing a letter to a federal judge in his drug case and asking for a sentence reduction but denied on the stand that he had made a deal with the Harris County district attorney’s office. The prosecutor in the case stated that Whitaker had not been promised anything from the DA’s office in exchange for his testimony.

The prosecutor assured the jury that they could trust Whitaker’s testimony because it included confidential police information that only an eyewitness might also know. Specifically, Whitaker told police that two guns, a 9-millimeter and a .38 special, were used in the Perry shooting.

On Oct. 27, 2000, the jury convicted Burks of murder after a week-long trial. Burks faced up to 99 years in prison. At his Oct. 30 sentencing, the prosecutor told the jury that Burks was a reputed drug dealer who was the “top man” in a neighborhood gang that violently ruled over the Fifth Ward. He encouraged the jury to hand down a long sentence to take Burks off the streets he terrorized. The jurors obliged and sentenced Burks, then 28 years old, to 70 years in prison.

Burks appealed his case twice, but with no success. The story could have ended there. But in 2017, the federal government indicted Chad Scott—a decorated Drug Enforcement Administration agent in New Orleans who had made drug case after case for the agency across the southern U.S.—on a slew of federal charges including perjury, obstruction of justice, and falsifying records in a federal investigation. Scott, known by some of his targets as the “white devil,” had a history with Burks, too.

Lamar Burks (seated, center) and his children in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Lamar Burks Legal Defense Fund.

A hip-hop empire in the crosshairs

Burks was not the only Houstonian elated by Scott’s indictment. Houston rap mogul James Prince, founder of Rap-A-Lot Records, the record label that launched the careers of several of the city’s most famous hip-hop acts like Scarface and the Geto Boys, also hailed Scott’s downfall. “They finally caught one of the two DEA agents assigned to take my life over a decade ago,” Prince wrote in a May 2018 Instagram post.

Though Prince and Burks took very different paths in life, they were connected by their upbringing in the Fifth Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood once home to boxing icon George Foreman and U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan, who was both the first woman and first Black person to deliver a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.

The two men also shared a common foe: Chad Scott.

After Scott joined the DEA in the late ’90s, he was assigned to the Houston field office to work alongside another agent, Jack Schumacher, to investigate Prince and the Rap-A-Lot empire, which the agency suspected of running a widespread drug trafficking operation.

The DEA agents’ pursuit of Rap-A-Lot was dogged. Through their investigation, federal authorities arrested and charged more than a dozen associates of Rap-A-Lot. Scott and Schumacher became so notorious that Scarface called them out by name in his music. “Can’t be stopped, not even by a badge,” Scarface boasted. “Ain’t enough bullshit in the United States to come stop this Rap-A-Lot mafia shit.”

But Rap-A-Lot boss Prince was never charged. In 2000, the Dallas Morning News reported that in 1999 Prince wrote a letter to Congress claiming the DEA was harassing him and hurting his business.  The Rap-A-Lot probe was then shut down, reportedly after Representative Maxine Waters intervened on Prince’s behalf with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

“We put the spotlight on these so called ‘Gangster DEA Agents’ years ago because of their threats on my life and many other criminal acts they committed,” Prince wrote in his 2018 Instagram post.

In 2000, however, the shuttered Rap-A-Lot investigation arose when Burks went to trial. Scott and Schumacher’s investigation led the agents to Burks, who was then another up-and-comer in the Houston hip-hop scene. Burks ran his own label, Dolla Bill Recordz, and his family said he was trying to strike a deal with Prince.  In the early 2000s, Rap-A-Lot artists like Scarface had major label record deals as well as chart-topping hits; Scarface’s 2000 album “The Last of a Dying Breed” debuted at number seven on the Billboard 200.

“Lamar began to hang around Prince and approach him for contracts for some of his artists,” Burks’s brother, Don Burks, said. “They were eventually going to do business together.”

Burks’s connection to Rap-A-Lot became a focal point during sentencing at his murder trial. Although Scott did not testify, Schumacher was called as a witness by the state and he offered testimony linking Burks to the DEA’s investigation of Rap-A-Lot.

Schumacher took the stand and said multiple informants told him that Burks and Prince hung out together. He said Burks was known to drive vehicles owned by Prince, who once owned a used car lot in Northwest Houston and is an avid collector of classic cars. He said informants told him that the two men had been seen together around Houston and in Atlanta. Schumacher also said one of his informants told him that Prince was going to get Burks to kill him. (Burks’s family denies that he was ever involved in any alleged plot to kill a DEA informant.)

While Schumacher was on the stand, Burks’s defense attorney objected to what he said was Burks being put on trial for Rap-A-Lot’s alleged activities. He said his client had no connection to Prince’s label. But Schumacher testified that there were numerous mentions of Burks in the volumes of DEA reports written in the Rap-A-Lot investigation.

By the time that Houston police arrested Burks in 2000 for Perry’s murder, Scott and Schumacher had been ordered by their supervisors to conclude the DEA’s investigation into the city’s hip-hop scene. But according to legal filings by Burks, this mandate didn’t stop the agents from getting involved in the prosecution against him.

Innocence claims surface

Over the last year, Randy Lewis, a witness who testified against Burks to a grand jury, and Burks’s co-defendant, Clayton Brown, have come forward and signed declarations that Burks had nothing to do with the shooting.

Lewis said in a sworn statement that he was pressured by Scott and Schumacher to pin Perry’s murder on Burks even though he knew he was innocent. In his affidavit, Lewis said he didn’t see Burks shoot Perry, and that he was “intimidated into making this false statement against him.”

“After being arrested on an unrelated drug charge by Chad Scott and DEA Agent Schumacher, I was told that I would be let go if I cooperated with them,” Lewis says in the affidavit. He wrote that the agents told him that if he didn’t cooperate they would tell the streets that he was working with the police.

“It is only in the wake of the indictment of [Scott] … that a grand jury witness and DEA informant [Randy Lewis] has felt sufficiently safe to confess perjury under intimidation by Scott and his fellow agent, when he said he saw Burks commit the crime,” Burks’s attorney wrote in his appeal.

In addition, Burks’s team says in court filings that after he was arrested the DEA agents unsuccessfully tried to get him to cooperate against Houston hip-hop mogul Prince, the target of their investigation.

In March, Brown, the man who entered a guilty plea in the Perry case before Burks went to trial, came forward to back up Burks’s innocence claim. He had previously signed an affidavit in 2011 stating that the killer was “7’ feet tall, dark complexion, several gold front teeth, and had a Cajun or Louisiana accent.” Burks at the time stood approximately 5-foot-8 and weighed 180 pounds. In the March affidavit obtained by The Appeal, Brown wrote: “I want to make it clear that Lamar had nothing to do with Perry’s death. He was never at the scene and never fired any weapon.”

Brown wrote that he and Whitaker were responsible for the shooting.

But recently, Whitaker told prosecutors that he was truthful when he testified against Burks during the 2000 trial. In a March 21 affidavit taken by an investigator with the Harris County district attorney’s office, Whitaker said Burks’s legal team recently approached him and asked him to give a statement confessing that he lied during the trial. “I am writing this affidavit to inform the court to confirm that I told the truth in my trial testimony that I observed Lamar Burks shoot Earl Perry,” Whitaker wrote.

Chad Scott, his attorneys, and Jack Schumacher did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.

During the year and a half since Scott was indicted, there has been extensive fallout in several other of his major cases. A drug dealer with alleged cartel ties who was arrested by Scott’s task force and convicted of moving kilos of heroin across the southern U.S. was set free. Another man investigated by Scott who pleaded guilty to murder had his conviction overturned and was freed from prison. According to The Advocate,  the Department of Justice is reviewing dozens of cases worked by Scott and his team.

Scott himself is now facing multiple indictments and two criminal trials later this year. In February, the first prosecution against him ended in a mistrial.

Relationship between prosecutors and the Burks team turns rocky

After Burks filed his new appeal last year, the Harris County DA’s office told the Houston Chronicle that its conviction integrity unit had thoroughly reviewed the claims and stood by its case. However, the office  acknowledged that Burks had a right to continue with his third appeal.

But over the past few months, discussions between the state and Burks’s defense team over his appeal have grown contentious.

In early February, the judge in Burks’s case mistakenly signed off on an agreement between the DA’s office and Burks’s attorney, Michael Wynne, to set aside his conviction and have him released from prison pending a further probe into the Perry murder.

Burks and his family were elated when they heard the news that the judge had agreed to release Burks. “He was ecstatic, he had his bags packed,” Don Burks said.

But nine days later, the judge corrected the record and filed a document stating that prosecutors had not agreed to the terms of Burks’s release. The agreement was withdrawn and Burks remains in prison. “I think Lamar is still kind of in shellshock about that,” Don said.

After the motion was withdrawn, Burks’s family hired Goldman McCormick, a New York-based public relations firm, and issued a press release that said Harris County’s district attorney reneged on the deal. “Is Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg Responsible For Keeping A Wrongly Convicted Man in Prison For 20 Years?” the press release read. It also said that after the judge had signed off on the deal, “at the last minute Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg filed a motion to withdraw the agreement (siding with Chad Scott & Whitaker).”

Wynne told The Appeal that he never approved the press release by the Burks family and Goldman McCormick. Wynne provided emails to The Appeal in which he advised the firm against issuing the document. Nevertheless, in response, prosecutors filed a motion in March calling for a hearing to discuss the possibility of disciplinary action against Wynne.

The DA’s office is calling for Wynne to be sanctioned for what it sees as “a purposeful effort to improperly influence” the proceedings through “misrepresentations” to the court, according to the office’s recent court filings. In its motion seeking remedial action against Wynne, the DA’s office characterizes the claims about Ogg as an “assault on the truth.”

The office further says “Wynne never filed the promised Motion to Strike [the agreement] and his failure has caused confusion in the proceedings.” However, a notification of service for the Harris County district clerk’s office shows that Wynne’s firm did file a motion to strike the agreement on Nov. 6, 2018, and that the filing was accepted by the clerk’s office one day later.

Wynne said Harris County prosecutors “filed [the motion for sanctions] without thinking and without doing their homework. And without thinking of professional repercussions.”

“We stand by our motion,” a spokesperson for the DA’s office told The Appeal.

“There was a murder, and regardless of the family’s self-defeating media strategy and the DA’s attacks on counsel, there’s a question of whodunit,” Wynne told The Appeal. “I think that Mr. Burks has a right to an honest review of the facts in this case.”

A hearing has been set for April 9 to address prosecutors’ call for sanctions. Goldman McCormick told The Appeal that the firm has severed its relationship with the Burks family.

The Burks family is hopeful that they will be able to present new evidence at the April 9 proceeding as well. Don Burks said he would like the judge to hear from his brother. “I’d like to see Lamar testify at this hearing,” he said.

Burks’s daughter, Jada, said she too remains hopeful. “I feel like if we keep knocking on the door, it’ll eventually open.”