15,000 pieces of evidence potentially contaminated in HPD property room

HOUSTON – Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said it could take a full week to fully assess whether any evidence was contaminated by a malfunctioning sprinkler in a freezer in the Houston Police Department's property room.

"That's what I expect for them to do and that's what they will do," Turner said.

HPD said the sprinkler went off Tuesday afternoon in a freezer where biological and toxicological evidence is stored. HPD would not comment on how many pieces of evidence must be examined. However, sources tell Channel 2 Investigates that HPD may have to examine as many as 15,000 pieces of evidence connected to 4,200 cases.

It is not yet known how many of those cases are open or closed.

HPD officials said they do not know whether any evidence was actually contaminated.

Most of the evidence samples contained in cardboard boxes and envelopes that got wet were contained in zip-close bags or other plastic containers, HPD officials said.

President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association Tyler Flood, called for an investigation panel to oversee the examination of this evidence.

"It's one of those situations that we've never heard of before," Flood said.

Local 2 legal analyst Brian Wice said that until a full examination is complete, defense attorneys and prosecutors won't know if this incident will turn out to be a PR debacle or a bonafide nightmare for the criminal-justice system.

"We can only hope at this point it's not a worst cases, DEFCON 1 scenario," Wice said.

The president of the Houston Police Officers Union President Ray Hunt doubts any criminal cases will be affected by this mishap.

"We don't have anything that's just sitting up on a shelf, it's packaged pretty thoroughly to be sure it's there for safe-keeping until trial," Hunt said. "I would be very surprised if any cases are jeopardized because of what happened.

Hunt said no HPD employees were in the freezer when the sprinkler head malfunctioned. Hunt said an alarm notified employees that there was a problem.

Hunt said while the freezer does contain biological evidence, he was told no rape kits were affected.

The Harris County District Attorney's Office and Houston Forensic Science Center is monitoring the examination and repackaging the potentially affected evidence.