A Hard Look at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office
Multiple problems have cropped up under DA Devon Anderson’s tenure.
The recent revelation that Harris County deputies improperly disposed of evidence from hundreds of criminal cases—forcing the dismissal of ninety drug cases, with more dismissals likely to come—is merely the latest blow to the county’s embattled district attorney, Devon Anderson. Anderson was appointed to the position in 2013 by Governor Rick Perry following the death of her husband, former District Attorney Mike Anderson. Although she won election to the office in her own right in 2014, Anderson faces a strong challenge this fall from lawyer Kim Ogg, whom the Houston Chronicle endorsed this weekend.
Although she’s only been in office three years, Anderson has faced more than her share of issues, including:
Jailing rape victims
In July, Houston’s NBC affiliate, KPRC, reported that a 25-year-old rape survivor had been jailed for almost a month after breaking down on the witness stand during the trial of her rapist. According to the report, the Harris County prosecutor, Nick Socias, handling the case believed the woman, who was homeless and suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, would leave town before completing her testimony. Despite her mental illness, the woman was placed in the general prison population, where, she alleges in her lawsuit, she was assaulted by inmates and guards. (Part of the problem might have been a paperwork error that classified the woman as a sexual assault suspect rather than a victim.)
In response, Anderson said she regretted the jailing but said she and the prosecutor had seen no other option. “I believe that everything Nick did was correct,” she told the Chronicle. “He went to extraordinary efforts to try to get her help.” Last month, KPRC discovered that another rape victim was similarly jailed in Harris County to ensure her testimony. “It looks like a mistake was made from our office,” Anderson said. The first rape survivor is now suing Harris County officials.
Holding a man in jail after his conviction was tossed out
Alfred Dewayne Brown was sentenced to death in 2005 for the murder of Houston police officer Charles R. Clark and a check-cashing store clerk named Alfredia Jones. In 2014, the Texas Supreme Court threw out the conviction after finding that the prosecution withheld evidence from Brown’s defense team—as first reported by Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize in part for her work on the story—but Anderson kept him in jail for another eight months while she decided whether or not to try him again. Finally, in June 2015, Anderson announced that she was dropping the case and Brown was set free.
Questionable behavior by prosecutors
Last year, a Harris County prosecutor in Anderson’s office was caught exchanging more than 20 text messages with the bailiff overseeing the jury during a DWI trial, including messages asking for the jurors’ reactions to the defense lawyer, and a request for help tracking down potential evidence. A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said that the text messages were not unethical, but shouldn’t have happened. The bailiff was temporarily assigned to a different job during the investigation.
Stoking racial fears
Last year, Harris County Deputy Darren Goforth was shot to death in an apparent ambush while meeting with his mistress at a gas station. In response, Anderson and Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman called a televised news conference in which they blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for the shooting. It later turned out that the gunman, Shannon Miles, was mentally ill and had no connection to BLM. This case has been problematic for the sheriff’s office, which had to subsequently fire two deputies and a county investigator for having inappropriate sexual contact with Goforth’s mistress, an eyewitness to the murder.
As the Houston Chronicle wrote in its endorsement of Anderson’s challenger, Kim Ogg, “While other Texas counties have moved forward, our district attorney’s office insists only on moving in fits and starts with the threat of lawsuits overhead. We’re in dire need of a fresh set of eyes and a new way of thinking that will reorient the office toward one overriding principle: equal justice for all.”