HOUSTON – Houston attorney Paul Morgan has requested a federal investigation into thousands of pieces of evidence alleged to have improperly been destroyed by a former Harris County Precinct 4 deputy constable.
In a letter addressed to U.S. District Attorney Kenneth Magidson that has been obtained by KPRC2, Morgan called on Magidson to investigate potential civil rights violations, citing alleged missteps by Precinct 4 and the Harris County district attorney.
"As a direct result of Precinct 4’s unlawful destruction, 142 criminal cases have been dismissed, and over 1,000 pending cases are now in jeopardy," Morgan said in the letter. "This does not account for those potentially innocent defendants who have pleaded to cases with destroyed evidence, which could mean innocent people are sitting in prison over cases with missing evidence. According to the record, this unlawful destruction scheme goes all the way back to 2007."
Precinct 4 Constable Ken Herman disputed the idea that any scheme was involved. He attributed the tossed evidence to former Deputy Cpl. Chris Hess, a 15-year veteran of the department.
In January, Hess had been told to "clean out" the property room because it was getting full, but evidence connected to current cases that needed to be preserved was destroyed in violation of department policy and proceedures, Herman said Tuesday.
“I never thought I would have an employee that would go rogue and do what he did,” Herman said.
Herman confirmed he fired the Hess in April. He also says that an investigation by his office found that Hess improperly destroyed 7,761 pieces of evidence and that, of those, 861 were connected to 470 open cases.
Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said last week that her office is reviewing 21,500 pieces of evidence that were destroyed by Precinct 4 since 2007. So far, the destruction of evidence has prompted her office to dismiss 142 drug cases. She said 1,072 more cases are pending.
“I can tell you DA Anderson and her group are scrutinizing back from January 2007 to ensure the deputy hasn't done this kind of thing before,” Herman said.
Constable Herman said records kept on the evidence inventory system known as IFAS indicate Hess may have been violating disposal policy for years as a review of the system showed that court orders required for the destruction of evidence had not been entered as required.
Anderson's office is also conducting a criminal investigation to determine if the destruction of evidence was accidental, intentional or negligent.
On Friday, Anderson said it had taken months to determine the scope of the problem after her office had been initially notified in March because the numbers from Precinct 4 initially were contradictory.
Anderson urged the department to bring in an outside auditor to get an accurate count of the missing evidence. Tuesday Herman said he is in the process of doing that.
In his letter to the U.S. attorney, Morgan said, he is asking for a full and independent investigation into the situation by federal authorities. Morgan represents a defendant whose drug charge was thrown out in August because the evidence was among that destroyed.
In a separate letter to several city and county leaders, Morgan called for the decertification of Precinct 4, saying the office cannot handle evidence and can’t be trusted with criminal investigations and prosecutions. He also calls for an independent review of the agency.
Constable Herman called Morgan's call for decertification “ludicrous.”
Both Herman and a spokesman for the district attorney said Tuesday neither has a problem with federal officials opening an investigation.