For the second year in a row, Harris County leads the country in recorded exonerations — and nearly all of them were for drug convictions, according to the latest annual report from the National Registry of Exonerations released today.
In 2015, Harris County cleared the names of 42 people who originally pled guilty to drug possession, only for lab results to come back showing that the substances weren't drugs at all, or that their quantities were so minuscule as to be nearly undetectable. This brings the count to 73 drug exonerations in Harris County alone since 2014, when the Harris County District Attorney's Office's conviction integrity unit began tackling a growing number of drug convictions contradicted by lab reports, which were being processed “haphazardly and slowly,” the annual report notes. At that point, the unit launched an initiative to identify those false convictions.
By comparison, since 2014, the country as a whole outside of Harris County has exonerated 20 drug offenders.
Inger Chandler, who heads the DA's conviction review team, told the registry that a key reason so many innocent people may be pleading guilty to these crimes is that many were stuck in jail awaiting trial because they could not afford to make bail (a problem we've covered before). So rather than remain behind bars and risk prison time at trial, they take the deal and go home — with a criminal record following at their backs.
Of the 73 drug convictions overturned in the past two years, 41 defendants were arrested thanks to "field tests" that indicated a controlled substance was present — the report calls it a "notoriously unreliable test." Radley Balko of The Washington Post has tracked these field test errors across the country and found some involved officers mistaking everything from deodorant to breath mints to Jolly Ranchers as drugs. These tests are "inadmissible as evidence in court," the Registry says in its report, "but sufficient to justify an arrest and they may convince an innocent defendant that she is bound to be convicted at trial."
But the report cautions that, just because Harris County has found a rapidly growing number of wrongful convictions in these cases, that doesn't mean it's not a problem elsewhere — rather, that those mistakes haven't been found. Just as troubling: What about other crimes in which there is no lab test?
From the report: “What about innocent defendants who plead guilty to other misdemeanors and low-level felonies — assault, shoplifting, breaking and entering — in order to avoid pretrial detention and the risk of long terms of imprisonment after trial? Or innocent drug defendants who plead guilty to possession of actual illegal drugs that belong to someone else?”
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The Registry notes that, as exonerations keep increasing every year, the idea that wrongful convictions are “rare” has continued to be debunked — it estimates they are recorded about three times a week. And while Harris County may be trucking away on overturning drug convictions, the country as a whole clocked in with some troubling numbers. The United States saw a record number of wrongful convictions in 2015 (149); a record number of guilty-plea cases overturned (65); of official misconduct cases (65); of no-crime-even-happened cases (75); and a record number of false confessions (27). Most of the homicide defendants exonerated were under 18 or suffered from mental illness or an intellectual disability.
Harris County had one homicide exoneration — the only other exoneration aside from the 42 drug cases. Alfred Brown spent ten years on death row for a 2003 Houston murder before errors including mistaken witness identification, perjury and false accusation, and official misconduct came to light. Even though Brown had an alibi, a Houston cop had coerced Brown's girlfriend into changing her testimony against him, which would help secure the conviction, by jailing her for seven weeks until she agreed.
The Registry threw a shout-out to Netflix's Making a Murderer for raising the public's awareness about cases like Brown's — but ended on a chilling note. While people are becoming more open to understanding that innocent people go to jail every day, the problem is that we still have no idea just how many that may be.
“As with climate change, the significance of the issue of false convictions is now widely acknowledged, despite committed doubters,” the report says in its closing lines. “In other respects, we are far behind. We have no measure of the magnitude of the problem, no general plan for how to address it, and certainly no general commitment to do so. We’ve made a start, but that’s all.”