In 2015, Harris County exonerated 43 people who had been wrongly convicted of crimes – nearly a third of all exonerations nationwide – according to a report published Wednesday by The National Registry of Exonerations.
One defendant had been sentenced to death for murder, and the other 42 had been convicted of possessing drugs that lab tests later proved were not drugs.
There were at least 149 exonerations across the country last year, a record, according to the report.
The authors of the report credited the results to the Harris County District Attorney’s Post Conviction Review Section, one of two dozen conviction integrity units established around the country over the last few years.
However, some of those units may exist for little more than appearance’s sake; half of the units haven’t produced a single exoneration and four others have worked on only one, according to the report.
Harris County’s CIU, on the other hand, has produced 76 exonerations over the last two years – half of the national total.
The reason for those extraordinary numbers, according to the report:
“In early 2014 Deputy District Attorney Inger Chandler, the newly assigned head of the Harris County District Attorney’s Post Conviction Review Section (the county CIU), noticed that her office was processing a steady trickle of cases in which defendants pled guilty to possession of illegal drugs, and then, months or years later, a report from the crime lab would reveal that the materials seized from the defendant contained no controlled substances. She investigated and found that there were many more such cases waiting in the wings, and that they were being handled haphazardly and slowly.”
The report also noted that there are “200 additional guilty plea drug conviction cases with lab reports indicating no illegal drugs are still being processed.”
To keep from repeating the mistake, the Harris County District Attorney now has a policy of not accepting guilty pleas in drug cases until the supposed drugs are tested.
“We know of no other office that systematically tests suspected drugs after guilty pleas and dismisses all convictions that are not supported by the test result,” the authors write.
The exonerations underscore the problem with defendants pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, either because they can’t afford counsel or they can’t risk a long sentence.
Researchers found that most of the defendants who accepted long sentences — at least three years and seven months — had prior felonies. The majority of the innocent who pleaded guilty with no prior record served no jail time for the conviction.
In 41 of the 73 Harris County drug crime exonerations, the defendants had been arrested on the basis of a “field test” for controlled substance. Radley Balko of the Washington Post has compiled a list of substances known to produce false positives in field tests, which are not admissible in court. These include chocolate chip cookies, motor oil, spearmint, deodorant, billiards chalk, breath mints and Jolly Ranchers.
The man facing a death sentence who was exonerated was Alfred Brown, who had been convicted in 2005 of killing a police officer during a holdup of a check cashing store.
Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg wrote a series of columns in 2014 exposing prosecutorial misconduct in the case. Prosecutors not only failed to turn over an exculpatory phone record, they jailed a key defense witness on perjury charges for seven weeks until she changed her story to suit the prosecution.
The Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the murder conviction in November 2014, but Brown remained behind bars.
Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.