At a press conference Tuesday, Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman announced the results of a weeks-long property-room audit his office paid for following the evidence scandal that strained public trust and complicated dozens of pending criminal cases.
Kolene Dean, a property and evidence consultant and the founder of the Texas Association of Property and Evidence Inventory Technicians, conducted the audit on November 8 and was able to account for all but two pieces of evidence. The missing items included video of an assault on a police officer that had already been disposed of and a trash fire that had no suspects.
"We put hundreds of man hours in with her and her group to audit all of the property rooms (four) that Precinct 4 maintains," Herman said. "I don't like not being able to find two pieces of evidence, but that's out of thousands and thousands of pieces of evidence and property."
Herman said Dean made about ten recommendations for ways Herman could improve property-room management. Some included changing the property-room locks after the property-room manager who destroyed thousands of pieces of evidence was fired, and storing currency seized during police investigations in a bank account instead of in the property room.
The audit comes on the heels of a wide-ranging evidence scandal in which Corporal Chris Hess, the former Precinct 4 property room manager, was found to have destroyed more than 7,700 pieces of evidence in one fell swoop in January, without obtaining a court order or checking to make sure the cases were closed before incinerating the evidence. He has destroyed more than 21,000 pieces of evidence since 2007, and the Harris County District Attorney's Office is still investigating all the cases that evidence is tied to in order to see whether anyone was wrongfully convicted.
Of the 7,700 items destroyed by Hess this year, 861 items were traced back to 470 open cases, 183 of which were drug-related. By September, the DA's office had dismissed 100 of those cases so far.
“He put a lot of turmoil and hurt on our organization,” Herman said. “I've always said it was always intentional, negligent or accidental — we don't know. But what I can tell you is, we have a system in place called File on Q that keeps track of this stuff. He wasn't using it properly.”
Harris County property room managers started using the digital File on Q system in 2007 to track evidence destruction. Even though Hess admitted to investigators that he could not recall ever obtaining a court order since he began working in the property room in 2002, Herman said nothing before 2007 is traceable. While Herman said at the last press conference that he could find no evidence to indicate Hess had ever obtained a court order to destroy evidence since '07, he recanted that statement yesterday. Actually, Herman said, he found some court orders thrown in boxes in the property room during the audit, among other things that should not have been thrown in boxes, such as Internal Affairs Department investigative reports. (Herman said yesterday was the first time he had been in the property room.)
“Looking at this after meeting with Ms. Dean, it's clear that our employee just did not know certain rules and procedures and was not held accountable,” Hess said. “He was just back there flying by the seat of his pants, if you will, and we can't have that in this business.”
Hess's personnel file, obtained through a Texas Public Information Act request, revealed that he was hired as the property room manager under former Precinct 4 constable and current Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman without any training on property room management. In his interview with investigators, Hess said his training included a couple of seminars he attended in 2008, several years after he began working in the position. Curiously, his file is entirely bereft of employee performance evaluations throughout the time that Hickman was constable and Hess worked in the property room. After he received reviews every six months since he was hired in the early 1990s, the evaluations ceased after July 2001 and did not begin again until September 2015, once Herman took over.
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A review of the Internal Affairs investigative report into Hess's wrongful destruction of evidence (which Herman said he was “surprised” we and other outlets obtained) revealed that Hess was either seriously incompetent and ignorant of the department policies governing his own job, or he was faking it, as defense attorney Paul Morgan surmised in an interview with the Houston Press.
Morgan — whose own client almost took a 25-year plea deal on a meth possession case even though the evidence in his case was destroyed — said it was hard to believe that no one who helped Hess during the big property room clean-out in January had thought to make sure the cases were closed before destroying 1,340 pounds of evidence. Four other people, including two internal affairs investigators who later investigated the case, helped Hess during that time with various tasks.
Asked if he had any reason to believe that Hess did not act alone, Herman said no. Asked whether he was concerned about the conflict of interest in which investigators who helped Hess later investigated Hess, Herman said no. “Here at this department, we wear many hats,” he said. “With the amount of work we have, at times, I need my internal investigators to wear hats and do background checks and things of that nature. In this case they helped research property.”
Herman said that, following the scandal, his office immediately implemented a new policy in which destroying any evidence whatsoever requires permission from the DA's office, the county attorney and several Precinct 4 superiors. “It won't be left up to one person,” Herman said.