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JoAnne Musick

It’s not just Precinct 4

There are problems with evidence rooms in other Constable precincts as well.

Constable Mark Herman

Constable Mark Herman

With Harris County’s Precinct 4 Constable’s Office mired in scandal over the improper destruction of 21,000 pieces of evidence, serious evidence cataloging and control problems also have been uncovered in the constables’ offices in Precincts 3,6 and 7, according to interviews and audits obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

While there is no proof yet that evidence has been unlawfully destroyed in those other three offices, 2,000 items were initially reported missing in Precinct 3; guns, jewelry, electronics and cash were misplaced in Precinct 6; and Precinct 7’s evidence room has been described as “a shambles.”

In Precinct 4, where the evidence destruction scandal is still unfolding, prosecutors so far have dismissed 100 criminal cases and are still determining how many convictions could be affected by years of careless work blamed on a corporal fired for illegally disposing of drugs, guns and evidence. The episode remains the subject of a criminal probe.

Only time will tell whether chaotic evidence handling practices reported in Precincts 3,6 and 7 will result in case dismissals, appeals or further investigations.

Harris County auditors in May 2015 uncovered evidence problems – never made public – in a review of the overstuffed property room inside the Precinct  6 Constable’s Office in the East End. There, auditors reported finding 28 percent of the evidence missing along with $54,000 in cash in a review of a sample of 799 items, the audit shows. Their visit to the office came only months after the previous constable, Victor Treviño, resigned after pleading guilty to misappropriating money from a charity he ran out of his office.

Constable Heliodoro Martinez, who replaced Treviño, said in an interview Friday that he immediately contacted the Harris County district attorney after receiving those results. It took five months for a team of two Harris County sheriff’s deputies and two of his own officers to locate the missing cash and other items. Martinez said he is still trying to impose order in an evidence room that hadn’t been cleaned out or organized in 26 years.

Unlike the Precinct 4 scandal, neither defense attorneys nor front-line prosecutors have been notified to review cases. So far, county lawyers have not deemed that any notifications or criminal investigations are necessary.

“To this point, we haven’t been made aware of any pending cases that have been affected in any way, shape or form,” Martinez said.

JoAnne Musick, a defense attorney who is past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said she is skeptical that no cases have been adversely affected.

“Every property custodian comes in and testifies how great their system is – but in these audits that’s not what they’re finding,” she said. “They’re having to dig stuff up. … How do you know it’s not been tampered with, it’s not altered, it’s not decayed?”

See here, here, and here for the background. None of the other precincts have had anywhere near the problems that Precinct 4 have had, but it’s too early to say that no cases have been affected. There are also some questions about the way the audits were conducted and the results communicated. The current auditor for the county is retiring, so perhaps there should be a high priority on re-reviewing all eight Constable precincts and ensuring we know what issues there are. And then maybe, as suggested by some people in the story and by commenter Steven Houston in an earlier post, it’s time to take these evidence rooms away from the constables and put sole authority for them in the Sheriff’s office.

Bland committee makes its recommendations for Waller County jail

Good to see.

Sandra Bland

Waller County needs a new jail, local officers need body cameras to record their activities and the sheriff’s office needs to promote civility, a study committee formed after the death of Sandra Bland said Tuesday.

The county came under national scrutiny in July when Bland was found hanged in her jail cell three days after being arrested by Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia, who says she assaulted him during a contentious traffic stop. Her death was ruled a suicide, but her arrest and subsequent jailing triggered accusations of racism. Bland’s family has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against the county, several of its employees and the now-fired Encinia.

Encinia is facing a perjury charge in Waller County, after a grand jury indicted him for lying about why Bland exited her car. The former trooper is also fighting to get his job back.

At Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith’s request, local attorney Paul C. Looney formed the study committee at the end of July to review the operations of his office and the county jail. Civil rights attorneys Craig Washington and Randall Kallinen, former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Morris L. Overstreet, and criminal defense attorneys Juan L. Guerra and JoAnne Musick served on the committee and had unrestricted access, some of the members said Tuesday. Looney served as a nonvoting member.

[…]

Washington said the recommendations are specific and will make a difference.

“We think they will go a long way to providing better relations between all the citizens of Waller County,” said Washington, who presided over the committee. “Not even dividing them down into police and public but just to all of God’s children, to ensure that this community is a shining beacon of light for perhaps other community toward a more just society.”

Smith said building or rebuilding a positive relationship with the community requires law enforcement to be aggressive and to show that officers are there to protect everyone.

“We’ve got to be on offense,” he said. “Step up and convince the public that we’re open minded … we’re gonna make changes … we’re gonna reach out to regain your trust.”

Smith said from what he’s read, he supports most of the recommendations, but some items won’t just happen in a few months. In the case of the new jail, for instance, land has been picked out but funding has not been approved, he said.

Nevertheless, Smith said, the recommendations will be taken seriously.

“It won’t be dust settling over the report,” the sheriff said.

You can see the recommendations at the story link, and a copy of the report at Grits for Breakfast. I think they’re all doable, and I hope they have a positive effect. There are other issues that should be addressed as well, like de-escalation training for officers and saner bail/bond policies, but those things are outside the scope of what this committee was asked to do. Someone should still be thinking about them, and not just in Waller County. Nonetheless, this is a good start, and I wish Sheriff Smith and his staff in implementing the changes.

Three panels investigating Sandra Bland’s death

One was appointed by the Sheriff:

Sandra Bland

In the wake of the controversial arrest of Sandra Bland and her jailhouse suicide, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith has asked for an independent panel of civilians to evaluate all aspects of the way he runs his department, from the cell blocks to the streets, and make public recommendations for change.

“He wants to use this tragedy as a growth opportunity,” said long-time defense attorney Paul Looney, who has been asked by the sheriff to form the five-member committee.

[…]

“We have been given carte blanche. We have been told we’ll have access to any piece of paper we want. We can visit with any prisoner or person without notice,” Looney said. “We can go on ride-alongs,” he said of riding in patrol cars with deputies to observe them first-hand.

Looney said the committee will be a diverse group of leaders and that none will be in law enforcement. He also said they won’t pull any punches in making recommendations, which will be shared with the public.

“In a time period of great tragedy, there is also a great opportunity for growth, and he doesn’t want to miss that opportunity,” Looney said of the sheriff. “I don’t intend to be kind, the people I include on the committee will not be kind. We intend to be constructive.”

One was appointed by the District Attorney:

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis formed a second independent committee Monday to review the arrest and death of Sandra Bland and also released a toxicology report that one expert said suggests the 28-year-old woman used marijuana shortly before jailers found her hanging in her Waller County Jail cell.

Mathis said he was bringing in defense attorneys Lewis M. White and Darrell W. Jordan, both of whom are African-American, to lead a panel that will oversee the work of his office and make recommendations about charges for possible criminal conduct during the arrest and confinement.

“There are many lingering questions regarding the death of Sandra Bland,” Mathis said, explaining why he has asked for help just days after Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith formed a similar committee to review jail procedures.

[…]

The announcement that officials were forming another independent review committee did not build much trust with critics.

Former Waller County Justice of the Peace Dewayne Charleston said he didn’t know White or Jordan, so he couldn’t speak to their abilities or loyalties, but questioned any committee whose leaders are “appointed by the same person they are providing oversight for.”

“He’s not bound to take their advice, suggestions or recommendations, so it’s just window dressing,” said Charleston, who has called for Mathis to recuse himself from the case. “They could give him the best, most accurate recommendation but if he’s not obligated to accept it or just takes parts of it, it doesn’t really matter.”

Both White and Jordan have limited prosecution experience, graduated from Texas Southern University’s law school and work in small firms with five or fewer attorneys, according to the Texas State Bar’s website.

White, who passed the State Bar in 2002, worked under Mathis as a prosecutor for a year. Jordan, who passed the bar in 2006, has served as a prosecutor in the Army National Guard, where he still is a defense attorney. Jordan also has worked as a talk radio host for KCOH, part of the broadcasting company owned by Houston mayoral candidate Ben Hall.

Vivian King, a prominent Houston defense attorney and former prosecutor, said she did not know White, but had confidence in Jordan, who she had as a student at TSU.

“I think he’s confident and smart and will ask for guidance where he needs it,” she said. “He does care about getting it right.”

JoAnne Musick, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers, said the decision to bring in someone familiar with the county, like White, might give the duo a useful perspective. But she said that insider status also could undermine the public’s trust in the process.

“Houston is a very close and large area with tons of experienced former prosecutors and defense attorneys that could undertake that review,” she said, noting she knows neither White nor Jordan. “Their selection seems a little odd.”

Musick is one of five people selected by Hempstead and Houston attorney Paul Looney to serve on the sheriff’s review committee, which has not yet met. On Monday, Looney identified the others: Juan L. Guerra Jr., criminal defense lawyer; Randall Kallinen, civil rights attorney; Morris L. Overstreet, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals; and former U.S. Rep. Craig Washington.

Jordan ran in the 2010 Democratic primary for judge of the 180th Criminal District Court. Here’s the judicial Q&A he did if you want to know a little more about him. The Sheriff’s panel has several well-known people on it, and I think they will live up to Looney’s promise that they will not hold back.

There will also be a legislative hearing:

The same day Waller County officials released results of Sandra Bland’s autopsy report, state lawmakers announced they will meet next week to discuss jail standards and police relations.

Members of the House County Affairs Committee, chaired by Houston Democrat Garnet Coleman, on Thursday will discuss “jail standards, procedures with regards to potentially mentally ill persons in county jails, as well as issues stemming from interactions between the general public and peace officers.”

That hearing will be tomorrow, July 30. Here’s the press advisory from Rep. Coleman, who can always be counted on to do a thorough job, and more on the hearing in the Trib. We need to learn all we can from this tragedy, and then to actually follow through on it, or we’re just going to keep having more like it. Still more here from the Trib.