by Matt Clarke
Destruction of evidence held at the Harris County Precinct 4 Constable’s Office led to the dismissal of over 140 Texas criminal cases—most of them involving drug charges.
When supervisors at the Precinct 4 Constable’s Office directed Deputy Constable Chris Hess to organize the evidence room, they had no idea what they were in store for. From January 1, 2016 until he was fired on April 12, 2016, Hess destroyed or threw out items of evidence affecting hundreds of active criminal prosecutions. This led then-Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson’s office to dismiss over 140 pending criminal prosecutions by the end of September 2016. All of the first 101 dismissed cases were nonviolent, and all but five involved drugs.
Federal investigators looking into the destruction of evidence said there may be as many as 21,500 individual pieces of evidence that were destroyed, which resulted in over 150 defendants being erroneously jailed or convicted.
“This is something that should never happen,” said Harris County Constable Mark Herman. “It’s devastating, it really is. But we’ll get over it. We’ll get through it.” The 150-plus defendants affected by the evidence destruction, however, likely will not get over it and through it as easily.
Despite the dismissal of 142 criminal prosecutions, defense attorneys are calling “foul,” alleging prosecutors allowed hundreds of defendants to plead guilty in cases they knew that all of the evidence had been destroyed. Their ire was increased in September 2016 when the district attorney’s office released emails showing they had been communicating with the constable’s office about the evidence dump for five months, yet no defense attorneys had been notified. And plea bargains continued to be offered and accepted. At that time, Herman said that 861 destroyed items had been connected to 470 cases; however, Anderson saidthat over 21,000 destroyed items could affect 1,072 pending cases. That is in addition to the 142 cases that had already been dismissed at that point and the hundreds that had already been resolved by a plea bargain.
“What came out today raises a big red flag,” said Tyler Flood, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “They didn’t tell the right people when they knew about it and that’s as big a problem as what’s happening in Precinct 4.”
Most of the destroyed items were suspected drugs or drug paraphernalia, but ammunition and shell casings also appeared in the list of destroyed evidence. This has led to the question of whether charges will be dismissed in violent crime cases as well.
In December 2016, a Harris County grand jury refused to indict Hess in connection with the destruction of evidence scandal. His lawyer announced that Hess wants to obtain a position with another department since his termination by Precinct 4 cannot be appealed. Chillingly, the lawyer stated that his client “looks forward to continuing on in law enforcement.”
Sources: www.abc13.com, www.chron.com, www.houstonchronicle.com, www.khou.com
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