HOUSTON- If we said more than four-thousand criminal cases could be thrown out by the Harris County District Attorney, then you might say, “water- you talking about?” But water is exactly what we’re talking about.
A malfunctioning sprinkler system prematurely sprayed in a Houston police department’s Property Room freezer this Wednesday causing water damage to boxes and envelopes which potentially held thousands of pieces of critical case evidence.
“We’re going to be looking at evidence that potentially has water damage, but if we believe it was compromised in any way, we’re going to be re-opening those packages to ensure there’s no damage,” stated Houston Interim Police Chief Martha Montalvo during a press conference Thursday afternoon.
She went on to describe what could potentially be damaged, stating that anything at risk was DNA evidence and that sexual assault kits were believed to be safe.
Even though most evidence is put in plastic tubs or baggies, there’s still a chance lots important information got super soaked.
An average fire sprinkler system dumps about twenty gallons per minute and the sprinkler ran for 10 minutes, so that’s a ton of wetness.
But no fire sprinkler systems don’t work like in the movies where only the ones that get heated above 155 degrees will discharge water. So, only one sprinkler went off and that's enough to have drastic effects.
“All of the labels, markings, bar codes. These things are written in ink on the paper outside of the containers. It could cause a real problem in saying and proving in court without a reasonable doubt that this is this person’s evidence," noted attorney Tyler Flood, the President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.
Right now, the Houston Forensic Science Center is examining the evidence to make sure nothing gets destroyed or cross contaminated, because a piece of ruined evidence could lead to a thrown out criminal case.
There won’t be any way to know the damage until everything has been thoroughly inspected which could take a while and according to Chief Montalvo will be painstaking and tedious work.
“You have people that could be in prison right now who have had writs filed on their cases to reopen it. Some of these cases might have been affected and the evidence is destroyed and now that’s not a possibility. This could have very serious effects consequences on a person’s life,” expressed Flood. “The Harris County Criminal Lawyer’s Association would welcome an invitation to be on a panel as a defense representative along with other neutral parties and a prosecutor as well. We can help spread the word and identify cases that are being affected.”
Combine this with Precinct 4’s messy evidence mishap last month and this could mean more than 5,000 cases could be thrown out.
Let’s just hope that the DA’s office doesn’t drown themselves with any more extra work.