HOUSTON - An embattled prosecutor facing a contempt charge for deleting e-mails was grilled yesterday by a federal judge who said he should have known better than to erase material he had been ordered to turn over.
"In fact, it can be a crime to destroy documents, can't it?" US District Judge Kenneth Hoyt asked Chuck Rosenthal, Harris County's district attorney. "It's called obstruction of justice, isn't it?"
Rosenthal told Hoyt he was just tidying up his e-mail system when he deleted more than 2,500 e-mails the judge had ordered him to produce. The hearing on the matter ended abruptly after two hours of questioning when Rosenthal's lawyer asked for a delay.
"I didn't think I was hard-deleting anything," Rosenthal said. "I thought the system maintained whatever I deleted in a separate part of the information technology system that could be retrieved to satisfy the subpoena."
The manager of the office's computer systems testified Thursday that he probably never will be able to recover 2,000 of the deleted messages.
Rosenthal could be fined or jailed if Hoyt finds him in contempt of court.
More than 1,500 e-mails remained on Rosenthal's computer or were recovered, and Hoyt released a batch last month that included pornographic, racist, and political messages. Love notes between the married prosecutor and his secretary were mistakenly released and then resealed.
Since the e-mails were made public, the Republican district attorney has been forced to call off his reelection bid and has faced calls to resign, and hundreds of protesters crowded the courtroom Thursday after marching from his office to federal court.
Lloyd Kelley, an attorney handling a civil rights lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff's Department, had requested all the e-mails Rosenthal sent and received between July and mid-October. Kelley filed the motion seeking contempt charges against Rosenthal.
In a deposition, Rosenthal said he deleted everything in his sent folder that was sent before Nov 4, and everything in his inbox that was received before May 3.
He described a different process to the judge yesterday, however, saying he reviewed his e-mails and deleted ones he didn't think he needed any more.
Rosenthal presides over an office that sends more convicts to death row than any other prosecutors' office in the nation.