The Harris County District Attorney's Office released a list Tuesday of all the cases that have been dismissed so far because of missing evidence from Harris County Precinct 4, but has still given no explanation of how the fiasco was allowed to happen.
After Precinct 4 superiors discovered that a deputy who worked in the Precinct 4 property room destroyed — whether on purpose or not, it is unclear — more than 21,000 pieces of evidence since 2007, the DA's Office began investigating which pending cases were affected. The last time that Deputy Chris Hess destroyed evidence without following protocol was in January; at that time, he destroyed more than 7,700 pieces of evidence. As a result, the DA's office has now dismissed 100 cases, given that no evidence even existed in them anymore.
More than two-thirds of the cases — 69 of them — were possession of controlled substance cases, with 13 of those being either possession with intent to deliver or possession of relatively large amounts, from four to 200 grams. Four of the dismissed cases were for the manufacture and delivery of hundreds of grams of substances, including cocaine and meth. A large chunk, 27, were possession of marijuana cases. And one was a burglary of a habitation.
The staggering amount of evidence destroyed by Hess without permission includes: hundreds of smoking pipes, more than 500 knives, at least 43 guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition and scores of cell phones, according to Precinct 4 evidence logs released by the DA's office. Hess also destroyed odd pieces of evidence like a suicide note, rope used to hang someone and one copy of the Houston Press.
The list of cases affected by the Precinct 4 scandal has dwindled from 142 to 100 since the DA's office originally announced how many cases prosecutors had to dismiss earlier this month. Spokesman Jeff McShan said in an email that the DA's office adjusted its figure because an IT technician originally failed to identify Precinct 4 cases dismissed specifically because of destroyed evidence. "At the time of our first press conference we asked IT for all cases dismissed involving [Precinct 4] during a certain time period. We were trying to be forthcoming to the media asap," he wrote in an email. "After further review, it turned out that 41 of those dismissed cases had nothing to do with property room."
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At that initial press conference, District Attorney Devon Anderson criticized Precinct 4 for continually providing her office incomplete, conflicting and inconsistent lists of all the affected cases. While lawyers the Houston Press spoke with said that still didn't excuse her failure to notify prosecutors and defense attorneys about the debacle for months, a review of one such spreadsheet makes it a little easier to understand why Anderson was so ticked off about these confusing lists.
One spreadsheet titled "Copy of Destroyed Property Case Status," sent between Precinct 4 staffers on April 25, is largely disorganized, to the point that it is unclear what exactly it is supposed to convey. Shorthand notes decorate the margins, with little to no context. The "case status" column — the apparent point of the list — does not specify when the case was considered open or closed, rendering the information essentially useless. We tried to clarify with Precinct 4 how to read the spreadsheet, but Lieutenant Christian Nicholson, who works in the records department, said he did not know either. A separate spreadsheet, which lists evidence destroyed by Hess between 2007 and 2015, is riddled with spelling errors and vague descriptions of evidence.
Kim Ogg, Anderson's opponent in the upcoming election, has gone ahead and assumed the 400-plus cases listed as "open" indicate that more than 400 people were wrongfully convicted or pleaded guilty even though no evidence existed against them. We expect to hear back from Nicholson tomorrow about what all the numbers really mean; if Ogg is correct, we will update the story.
Our records request for Hess's disciplinary records and performance reviews since 2000 is due back tomorrow as well.