A few weeks ago, the National Registry of Exonerations released their annual report detailing the exonerations that occurred in 2015. A detailed summary of that report can be accessed here. One part of the report was designated to prosecutorial offices’ Conviction Integrity Units (CIU), which aim to prevent, identify, and reverse wrongful convictions. CIUs have helped exonerate 151 people since 2003. One CIU in particular stood out in the registry’s 2015 exoneration report—the one in Harris County, Texas.
Of the total 151 CIU exonerations, Harris County (HC) was involved in almost half of them. In addition, HC’s CIU boasts 73 drug crime exonerations since mid-2014. Those drug crimes included possession or sale, and the exonerations occurred after lab tests proved the the purported drugs did not contain illegal substances.
Last year, there were 51 exonerations in drug cases, and HC’s CIU was responsible for 82% of them. Of the 47 people convicted for drug possession, a whopping 42 of them were from HC. All of HC’s CIU exonerations in 2015 involved drug-conviction guilty pleas, which brings to attention an important aspect.
Inger Chandler, the deputy district attorney that took over HC’s CIU in 2014, found that forensic crime labs gave the lowest priority to cases in which defendants pled guilty. Most labs are backlogged, and therefore felt no urgency to test the samples in those cases. In response to her findings, Chandler implemented new procedures hoping to combat the problem. One of these procedures is to test drug evidence in the order that it arrives. If the tests prove there are no illegal substances present, the public defender’s office is notified so they can file a writ to have the conviction reversed. Nicholas Hughes, the assistant public defender that handles most of the cases, gives priority to any cases in which someone is currently serving a sentence.
Another important factor that came to light in these cases is the field test used by law enforcement to test drugs. The test kits contain chemicals that change color upon contact with illegal substances. However, these field tests are known to be unreliable, generating positive results for illegal substances for items such as Jolly Rancher candy and soap. Out of the 73 drug crime exonerations in HC, these shoddy field tests were responsible for 39 of the charges.
The biggest question raised by the record high number of drug crime exonerations in HC relates back to guilty pleas and why defendants pled guilty in the first place. Chandler explained that defendants might have thought they were in fact possessing illegal drugs, when in reality the drugs they purchased were actually fake. Another reason may be due to the fact that prosecutors consider crimes such as drug possession low priority, and therefore can avoid wasting their time on them by offering defendants plea deals. Because many defendants cannot afford private attorneys or do not wish to spend years of their life behind bars attempting to prove their innocence, oftentimes they think plea deals are their best option.
In addition to Chandler’s procedural fixes, the HC District Attorney’s Office has also made efforts to prevent this issue. In February of last year, they upgraded one of their policies to no longer offer plea deals to defendants facing jail time for drug possession until the forensic lab returns complete results.
Unfortunately, CIUs have experienced some setbacks. Many district attorneys’ offices do not care to be bothered with reopening these cases. In addition, some jurisdictions destroy evidence once a defendant has pled guilty. Despite these circumstances, CIUs have and will continue to do great work in helping to exonerate innocent people.