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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
Crime & Courts

Future murky for cases handled by fired Tampa detective

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The details of a federal investigation of a former Tampa police detective are now public, but the question of what will happen with the nearly two dozen death investigation cases in which Eric Houston collected and analyzed evidence remains as murky as ever.

So far, the only court filing related to the Houston investigation has been a motion to delay the sentencing of Dontae Morris, convicted of shooting to death two Tampa police officers in 2010. That motion was denied last week, and the hearing for Morris, who is facing the possibility of the death penalty, is scheduled for Friday.

Documents made public last week revealed a federal grand jury is looking into allegations that Houston took personal information of homicide victims, witnesses and defendants in police databases, and that the data was later used for tax-refund fraud.

Byron Hileman is a defense attorney with the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Council, which represents indigent defendants when the public defenders’ office can’t. He has several clients on the list of cases in which Houston played a part, including Morris.

Hileman filed the motion to delay sentencing for Morris earlier this month, saying that until he knew the focus of the investigation, he could not prepare appropriate post-sentence motions in the case.

Hileman said his motion to continue the sentencing likely will be renewed at the hearing to make it part of the record. He said, though, he doubts he will argue the points in it, even after the details of the federal investigation were revealed last week.

He said Houston’s testimony at the Morris trial took up more than 80 pages of the transcript but that the judge ruled Houston’s role wasn’t significant enough to make a difference in the trial’s outcome. A jury found Morris guilty of two counts of first-degree murder.

As for other cases, including David Earl Williams, accused of shooting to death Ryan McCall, a popular University of Tampa student in 2009, Hileman said no motions are in the works for any of those cases.

Hileman said that if the state uses Houston as a witness, his testimony will be impeached. But prosecutors aren’t expected to put on the witness stand a fired detective under federal investigation.

“It may or may not affect it,” Hileman said, “but we have an obligation to check it out to make sure it had nothing to do with any of our cases.’’

Tampa police fired Houston last month. The department had fired his wife, La Joyce, a former police sergeant, in October. Neither has been charged by federal authorities, though La Joyce has been charged in state court with food-stamp fraud.

Eric Houston is the target of a wide ranging federal probe that may last through the summer. Eric Houston used police databases to obtain personal information for thousands of people in whose name fraudulent tax returns were filed, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in U.S. District Court last week.

The affidavit said 4,600 people whom Eric Houston ran through police databases in a three-year period later had fake federal tax returns filed in their names, and nearly two dozen of those were connected to investigations conducted by Houston’s squad.

About 21 victims of fraudulent tax returns were in files worked by Houston, the affidavit said. They included crime victims, witnesses and defendants of homicides or aggravated batteries, including one who died of a drug overdose.

Those cases are being reviewed by state prosecutors and police officials to determine the extent of Houston’s involvement. Most cases, officials have said, include other detectives who can testify to the same facts as Houston, rendering his testimony unnecessary. The review of those cases is ongoing.

“We are working with the state attorney’s office, reviewing each one of those cases,” said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy on Tuesday morning. She said investigators do not yet know how long the review will take.

Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office spokesman Mark Cox said each case is undergoing review as it comes up in court.

“It’s still a case-by-case basis as we go forward,” he said.

As a homicide detective, Eric Houston has access to a number of law-enforcement databases that include personal identifying information. Authorities use the databases for everything from drivers license checks during traffic stops to confirming the identity of criminal suspects.

Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor fired Eric Houston last month. The detective, who has served more than two decades with the department, has filed a grievance over his firing and has a hearing scheduled for June 2, said his PBA attorney, Owen Kohler.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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