Less than a month after Johnny Adams pled guilty to possession of less than a gram of cocaine in 2009, the Harris County District Attorney's Office received results from the Houston Police Department crime lab showing that, actually, Adams had no drugs at all.
And then: nothing.
Adams continued to sit in jail for the remainder of his 90-day sentence, despite the fact that the DA had clear-cut evidence that would have vacated his conviction and returned him to his family. [*See update below]. In fact, it wasn't until five and a half years later, in July 2014, that prosecutors finally acknowledged the crime lab results and sent a letter to Adams that he was “convicted in error.” Finally, this month, he was formally exonerated — a good seven years late.
Adams's exoneration is one of dozens of drug conviction reversals in Harris County in recent years. From 2014 to the end of 2015, 73 people were cleared of drug crimes in Harris County, leading the country two years in a row in drug exonerations (and, as a result, all exonerations), according to an annual report from the National Registry of Exonerations released last month. That's largely because, in 2014, the Harris County District Attorney's conviction review team started aggressively hunting for false drug convictions after prosecutors realized test results from the lab were somehow never seeing the light of day. They were often processed so slowly that they were just forgotten about and never communicated — meanwhile, innocent people sat in jail. And according to Harris County Public Defender Nick Hughes, who has filed dozens of writs for innocent drug offenders, that's likely what happened in Adams's case.
“Sometimes [the results] just sat there on somebody's desk,” Hughes said. “It was worse than just falling through the cracks. There was no system in place. There was nothing that dealt with this issue whatsoever.”
While this problem may have been brought to light, prompting dozens of post-conviction writs, Hughes says there are several other problems that persist.
One of them is that most innocent people are pleading guilty to low-level drug offenses because they just want to get their jail time over with. Many, he said, often can't afford bail, and so they're sitting in jail waiting for their court date, which may be reset multiple times. After prosecutors realized the problem that this presents in drug cases — causing people to plead to a lesser sentence before the drug test results even come back — District Attorney Devon Anderson created a policy in early 2015 stating that prosecutors can't offer plea deals until they've got those test results back from the lab.
“But that's a really shitty solution if you're the guy sitting there behind bars,” Hughes said. “You might have lost your job, maybe your kids; your family might have some tension they're left to deal with. It's just a bad situation.”
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Another problem, Hughes said, is the field tests cops use to determine whether someone has drugs, tests that are notorious for false positives. In fact, the Washington Post once compiled a short list of the amount of strange items these field tests had mistaken for drugs: Deodorant, billiards chalk, breath mints and Jolly Ranchers are just a few examples. Perhaps that's why the results for some of those "drugs," when taken to the lab for more formal testing, turn up negative. Hughes says that in many cases, it's impossible to know exactly where the system failed because there's no documentation about how those field tests were even administered. As Hughes told the Press, “My bottom line is, when you can't check their work and the courts aren't really holding them accountable for anything, it really kind of limits your ability to push these issues or have any change.”
Hughes said that change, at this point, really rests in judges' hands: Until they start granting drug offenders more personal bonds so they don't need to sit in jail awaiting either test results or a court date, the problems aren't going away anytime soon.
Over at the National Registry of Exonerations, where researchers track exonerations on a daily basis, Director Sam Gross called Johnny Adams's case "disturbing." But his colleague, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Maurice Possley, offered perhaps a more disturbing idea: Johnny Adams's case is among those that we know about. How many other cases of innocent offenders sat atop prosecutors' desks untouched?
Update 2:20 p.m.: Inger Chandler, who heads Harris County's Conviction Integrity Unit, checked on Johnny Adams's release date, and says he was actually released on time served on the day he pled guilty; Harris County Jail time carries 2-for-1 credit, and Adams had already served 57 days, Chandler said. "I can’t speak to what happened to the lab report at that point," she told us. "Clearly an error here in 2009. But when it was discovered during a thorough review in 2014, we did everything we could to fix it."