Harris County DA: 142 cases dismissed over destroyed evidence
HOUSTON — The Harris County legal system is living a clerical nightmare.
A department in the Harris County Precinct 4 Constable’s Office is under investigation after constable deputies were accused of trashing evidence connected to several pending cases, according to county officials. District Attorney Devon Anderson held a news conference Friday to discuss when the incident was discovered and how the Public Integrity Division’s investigation will impact current cases.
So far, Anderson said the incident has result in the dismissal of 142 cases and an estimated 21,500 pieces of evidence have been reported destroyed. She said the district also has 1,072 cases that are pending.
“I’ve asked the prosecutors in each court to evaluate those (1,072 cases) one by one, to see what evidence was destroyed and is there any left to go forward,” Anderson said. “If there’s any left to go forward, we will.”
Anderson said an administrative assistant in Harris County Precinct 4 discovered in February evidence in three cases had been destroyed prior to testing and without valid destruction orders.
“This would have been the first time in the case where anyone realized that evidence had been destroyed,” Anderson said. “Later that same month our office discovered additional drug evidence from a handful of felony cases was destroyed.”
Anderson said an investigation was launched but it didn’t get off on a steady foot. The Public Integrity Division requested a list of incident reports related to the destruction of evidence. At first, Precinct 4 reported that 56 incidents occurred, but as the investigation continued the number of incidents continued to fluctuate — generating a list teeming with conflicting information.
“Over and over again, Public Integrity Division asked Precinct 4 for a complete list but it was clear that the list were conflicting and incomplete,” Anderson said. “Trail prosecutors in this office were not aware of any issues with their cases until one of them was getting ready to go to trail a couple weeks ago.”
The severity of the situation reached new highest when a prosecutor requested case evidence the day before trail and was told the evidence had been destroyed the day prior. The attorney in this case was forced to dismiss her case, Anderson said.
Anderson said it was the final straw, and her office requested Constable Mark Hermann complete its independent audit immediately and send over a new list.
“However, it wasn’t a list I had any confidence in because we had already been through about five lists that were incomplete and inconsistent, but I felt like we had to start somewhere,” Anderson said.
This new list reported that 21,500 pieces of evidence has been destroyed, Anderson said 600 hundred of which have been linked to disposed cases.
“The majority of cases are drug cases, but I would have to say they’re all different kinds,” Anderson said. “We trailed an aggravated assault where the bullets were destroyed but there was other evidence remaining — and we got 50 years on that case.”
Anderson said to make matters more frustrating, the investigation is learning that evidence that was once reported as destroyed, wasn’t in actuality.
“I think every law enforcement office knows that they are the keepers of the evidence,” Anderson said. “And we have to have evidence to prosecute cases successfully, so we would hope they would use national best practices to run their property rooms.”
The district attorney said there are numerous agencies available to these offices if they ever need help developing a unique property room policy.
The district attorney wants the public to know her office and investigators are doing everything it can to correct the situation and relieved the problem.
However, the question on everyone’s mind is was this deliberate, and if so, who did it.
“Intent is definitely going to be on of the focus of our investigation,” Anderson said. “We need to find out who did it, and why they did it. (Intent) is the subject of our investigation right now.”