The Harris County Precinct 4 deputy who was fired after destroying evidence in hundreds of pending criminal cases this year has been wrongfully tossing evidence without following department protocol since 2007, Constable Mark Herman announced Tuesday.
Herman’s announcement comes just after Houston defense attorney Paul Morgan wrote a letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office asking the federal government to investigate Harris County Precinct 4 and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, arguing that neither agency is capable of conducting an independent investigation and that the DA’s office is complicit in the fiasco. Morgan also asks the feds to strip Precinct 4 of law enforcement duties and restrict the precinct only to ability to serve civil process and warrants, because it has demonstrated that it “cannot handle criminal investigations and prosecutions,” Morgan wrote.
Since 2007, the fired deputy, Chris Hess, has destroyed more than 21,000 pieces of evidence, putting more than 1,000 cases in jeopardy. Already, the DA’s office has dismissed 142 pending cases, most of them drug-related, because the evidence was incinerated in January — the last time Hess destroyed evidence before he was caught and fired.
This problem only became public after Morgan and attorney Emily Detoto discovered in August that drug evidence in their own client’s case was destroyed — just as a prosecutor was offering their client, David Bellamy, a 25-year plea deal for meth possession, Morgan said. It was among the first cases to be dismissed due to the Precinct 4 missing-evidence fiasco.
But as more details have surfaced of the hundreds more affected cases, what has bothered Morgan and Detoto the most is the complete lack of action the district attorney’s office had taken on the issue, they say — even though District Attorney Devon Anderson admitted to knowing about the destroyed evidence since February. It was only directly after KTRK aired a story about Bellamy’s case on August 17 that Anderson blasted out an email to all her prosecutors, ordering them to stop offering plea deals or taking to trial any cases involving Precinct 4.
Morgan and Detoto say it was an email that should have been sent out seven months ago.
“With something this large, it’s either the height of deception or the height of incompetence — either way it’s inexcusable,” Morgan said. “But which office has more blame? It’s the district attorney’s office all day. They legally have more responsibility. It’s why we have shiny gold bar cards. This just can’t happen.”
This is nuts. I hadn’t followed this story very closely, so let’s review a few previous stories to catch up:
So a big mess, and we’re far from the end of it. In addition to being another headache for District Attorney Devon Anderson, it’s also now a campaign issue.
Harris County District Attorney candidate Kim Ogg is calling for a special prosecutor to investigate “possible civil rights violations” in the wake of disclosures that thousands of pieces of evidence were wrongly destroyed by the Precinct 4 constable’s office.
Ogg, a Democrat who is facing Republican incumbent District Attorney Devon Anderson in the November general election, questioned why Anderson waited more than six months to notify trial prosecutors that the evidence may be missing.
“It’s time we asked for an independent prosecutor to investigate not just the actions of Precinct 4, which are going to be reviewed by the Justice Department, but of this district attorney and her assistant district attorneys,” Ogg said Thursday during a news conference. “For every person who was convicted where evidence had already been destroyed, they’re entitled – in all likelihood – to a new trial.”
Anderson fired back, saying she has been open with the public about how she came to learn of the property room debacle in Precinct 4 and said Ogg is politicizing the issue.
“I have spoken at length with the media on this situation,” Anderson said in a written statement Thursday. “I have given them all the details and all the facts. If there are any questions on specifics I am happy to answer those, but Kim Ogg’s attempt to politicize this and make it a DA campaign issue is desperate.”
Anderson’s public integrity unit has been investigating the discrepancy since February, but the dozens of prosecutors who handle cases at the trial level were apparently not notified until Aug. 19 to stop work on Precinct 4 cases, after a defense attorney raised questions about missing evidence in his client’s case.
Ogg said failure to alert prosecutors more quickly and to disclose details about the missing evidence to defense attorneys appears to be prosecutorial misconduct.
Unfortunately for Anderson, she’s got some credibility problems to overcome if she wants to make a “politicization” claim stick. To be fair to her, however, her office isn’t the only one with some questions to answer here. Anderson has largely blamed Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman for the problem, but Herman has only been in office since last year, and the evidence destruction apparently goes back a lot farther than that. Let’s return to that Press story we began with:
If Hess had destroyed evidence in any pending cases since 2007, then that leaves defense attorneys puzzled over how prosecutors never discovered they had no evidence against suspects they convicted or persuaded to take plea deals.
Herman took over as constable in May 2015 after former Precinct 4 constable Ron Hickman became county sheriff. In January, Herman ordered Hess and several deputies to clean out the storage room because it was overfilled with evidence. He said his office caught Hess’s misconduct shortly afterward, but he could not comment on or account for how Hess got away with destroying evidence for nine years prior. He says the constable’s office has passed various audits “with flying colors.”
Herman said Precinct 4 superiors can only trace Hess’s policy violations to 2007 because that’s when the department started using a new electronic system to track evidence destruction and the property room’s inventory. Hess had been working in the property room, though, since 2000, which is when Hickman became constable.
Herman told the Press that when he ordered a review of all of Hess’s past employee evaluations since 2000, strangely no evaluations on Hess were on file. By contrast, Herman said that every employee is supposed to be evaluated every year.
A sheriff’s office spokesman declined to comment on allegations that Hickman failed to discipline Hess for violations until it could be confirmed through records that Hess had been breaching department policies since 2007. The Press has requested the documents.
So one has to wonder how it is that now-Sheriff Ron Hickman didn’t discover this problem over the course of eight years. That’s a question that could use a bit more exploration. Like I said, I think we’ll be learning new things about this for quite some time to come.