The Harris County District Attorney's Office mailed out 7,754 notices Wednesday informing defense attorneys that their former clients may have been affected by the 2016 Harris County Precinct 4 evidence debacle, concluding roughly a year of investigation to determine which specific cases were affected. That's in addition to another 2,730 notices sent out directly to defendants on Friday, the DA's office confirmed to the Houston Press Wednesday.
Last year's scandal arose after Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman discovered that the now-former property room manager, Chris Hess, had for years been destroying loads of drugs, firearms and paraphernalia without a court order, as is required. Somehow, this behavior had gone unnoticed for nine years inside a disorganized and in some ways archaic property room where Chris Hess was the sole employee. Herman fired him upon learning of the more than 21,000 pieces of wrongly destroyed evidence. Yet even though Precinct 4 notified former DA Devon Anderson as early as February 2016, it was not until August 2016 that Anderson notified the defense bar through what current DA's office spokesman, Dane Schiller, describes as one "overarching disclosure."
The cases date back to between 2007 and 2016, which had still been under investigation even after Anderson left office, Schiller said in a statement to the Press. He said that all of these cases have been adjudicated, but was not clear on whether they were closed before the evidence went missing or are simply currently closed—scenarios that each would have starkly different consequences. Asked to clarify, Schiller said in a follow-up:
"We drilled down deep and determined which specific cases were involved. It is up to defense lawyers to determine whether they believe there is any significance to their clients, including whether the destruction came while the case was ongoing or after it was closed. Keep in mind that this administration has literally gone through thousands and thousands of records to ensure the appropriate parties are specifically notified rather than they having what they previously had – one over-arching disclosure to everyone that could perhaps potentially be affected.
Constable Herman told the Press he viewed this round of notices not as a conclusion of the investigation but as a "second conclusion"—almost redundant, Herman said, because he had worked closely with the Anderson administration to identify cases.
Still, Paul Morgan, a defense attorney who was also the whistleblower on last year's Precinct 4 evidence debacle, said that these new disclosures have raised serious questions about the severity of last year's scandal and said defense attorneys should take the notices extremely seriously. The letter he received today reads:
"Please be advised that evidence collected by [Precinct 4] deputies has, in some instances, been destroyed or is missing. Your client's case(s) may be affected. This notice is provided to allow you to take whatever action you deem appropriate in your client's case(s) as it relates to the collection and availability of evidence."
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As Schiller said, it will be incumbent on all defense attorneys to figure out if further action needs to be taken in the cases. Morgan said that, if he or his colleagues discover that evidence had been destroyed prior to the case being adjudicated, there could be "serious civil rights abuses" at stake.
"The entire defense bar has an extra duty to go and investigate these notices to see if there's any Brady issues that would require appellate relief or a new trial," Morgan said. "At this point, the appearance of impropriety is fairly deep and severe."
Herman conceded Hess's actions had been improper last year, although a Harris County grand jury declined to indict Hess for his actions.
The DA's office had already dismissed more than 140 cases in connection with the missing evidence. The additional notices will not result in more dismissals — because these cases are already adjudicated — but potentially could trigger post-conviction actions.