Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Precinct Four & The Gift that Keeps on Giving

As I was getting ready to go to court this morning, my e-mail inbox suddenly began lighting up with multiple e-mails from a "No Reply" address from the Harris County District Attorney's Office.  There were seven in total, and they all began with this:

I was surprised.  Although Precinct Four has traditionally been the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to mishandling evidence, I hadn't heard about any new scandals involving them.  I knew they had lost some evidence during Hurricane Harvey, but I was pretty sure that all of the defense attorneys had already been notified on those affected cases.  If I, alone, had received seven notifications, this was a clear indication of a really widespread problem, right?

So, I clicked on the the attachment to read what case was affected.

The first thing I noticed when I read the attachment was that, although the defendant named in the attachment sounded vaguely familiar, I was pretty sure it wasn't a case that I was currently handling.  The next thing I noticed was that the Cause number listed seemed fairly old.  Current felony cause numbers are in the 150000s, and the first notice I had referenced a case in the 135000s.  

So, I searched my records for the case.  As it turned out, it was a case from 2012 where my client had pled to 2 years TDCJ.  So, I checked the next case.  It was also an 2012 Aggravated Assault case, where the client had gotten a reduction to a misdemeanor.  The next was a case from 2009.  All of the cases had been disposed of a minimum of 5 years.

All of the sentences (if the cases hadn't been dismissed) had already been completely served out.

Obviously, the next question that ran through my head was "what exactly am I supposed to do with this information?"

The notice weren't even remotely specific as to what evidence had been lost or destroyed.  Additionally, there was no indication as to when the evidence had been lost.  Was it before the case was disposed?  Would the evidence have been material to the decisions the client made?  Is there a possibility that the plea could be considered involuntary based on this new revelation?

At a minimum, it would seem that attorneys receiving these e-mails need to figure out some of those basic questions.  I'm curious to see whether or not the County is planning on paying the attorney fees for this.  I was lucky.  I only had seven notices.  One attorney I spoke to this morning had received forty-two.  

These cases are going to involve some legwork, but they are also going to involve tracking down old clients.  That's not a small task -- especially not if you have 42 former clients to find.  An investigator is going to be needed and they don't work for free, either.

All of this evidence destruction presumably tracks back to former Deputy Constable Chris Hess, who was fired from Precinct Four in 2016.  Back then, those of us around the courthouse presumed that we had seen the worst of the scandal when the D.A.'s Office dismissed so many active cases.

As it turns out, that was just the tip of the iceberg.


Anonymous said...

There doesn't seem to be any indication that this letter was sent to your former client. Because (presumably) you no longer represent that defendant, it is doubtful that this letter satisfies any Brady requirements, assuming that's what the DA's office is trying to do.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm being cynical but this strikes me as more political grandstanding by DA Ogg. I believe there's a spreadsheet floating around listing the cases and what evidence was missing but previous accounts suggest none of the evidence was destroyed until Commissioner's Court appointed Mark Herman to become Constable. That gives you a general idea of when the evidence was likely destroyed, Deputy Hess instructed to clean out the evidence room the same year as Mark was appointed.

Given the lack of details in the notification, perhaps your fees should come from Ms. Ogg's budget as they could have included the basics to comply with Brady but it sounds like she just reopened a can of worms unnecessarily for personal political gain.

Anonymous said...

Say what you want about Ogg but you have to admit that past administrations would have never publicized the depth of this incident. They would have addressed individual cases where the attorney asked to see the evidence instead of conducting their own investigation and contacting defendants and their attorneys as Ogg has done.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:30, the problem with that belief is that the Anderson administration most certainly did publicize the depth of the matter and made it clear that Precinct 4 provided different information every time the DA's office made an inquiry. The office also notified everyone of the matter, that including the spreadsheet Anon 6:56 referred to. Isn't this latest notification simply a rehash of that original notification?

Anonymous said...

The current elected District Attorney needed some ink ... she hasn't been in/on the media in awhile.

Anonymous said...

What new major screw-up is D.A. Ogg using this side-show to cover-up?


Anonymous said...

Please explain why you have to do something on disposed cases. Let’s assume the evidence was destroyed a year after the defendant pled and was available when the person plead guilty.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2 PM, until there's a court order signing off on the destruction or release of the evidence, the case could still be working it's way through appeals or other review. There are times when someone pleads guilty but their lawyer intends on challenging the constitutionality of the law in question or when questions arise regarding the quality of counsel, or they are found guilty in trial and continue the fight. Most of this amounts to pure speculation regarding how many cases it impacts, the numbers likely hugely inflated as part of some grandstanding attempt to further discredit the previous DA to keep her from mounting another run for office. But the idea is that if even a single defendant was convicted without evidence, they should have another bite at the apple.

The two questions I have have been raised in other places but why is this news to anyone a second time and why aren't defense lawyers asking to see the physical evidence against their clients if it is so important to their cases to merit dismissal? I know Harris County has a reputation for running a plea mill but it seems pretty basic to familiarize oneself with the evidence before accepting a plea bargain.