Posts Tagged ‘Guilty pleas’

Harris County’s Conviction Integrity Unit’s Drug Crime Exonerations

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 01, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (1)

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.

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2015: A Record-Setting Year in the World of Wrongful Conviction

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 08, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (2)

Every year, the National Registry of Exonerations releases an annual report on all the exonerations that occurred that year. The report lists the total number of exonerations for that year and also provides details about those exonerations such as what crimes occurred and what caused the wrongful convictions. As of January 27, 2016, the Registry has recorded a total of 1,733 exonerations in the United States since 1989. Exonerations are now common, averaging at about 3 exonerations per week. The Registry released their exoneration report for 2015 on February 3, 2016, and the report shows that several records related to wrongful conviction were broken last year.

There were 149 exonerations in 2015, which is more than any other year. The previous record was 139 exonerations in 2014. Of the 149 exonerations last year, exonerees spent an average of 14.5 years in prison. The majority of exonerations were for violent crimes—39% were homicide and ten percent were adult and child sexual assault. The exonerations that were for non-violent crimes were mostly drug possession and distribution cases. The exonerations took place in 29 states and Washington, D.C, along with three exonerations in federal cases and one in Guam. Texas had the most number of exonerations with 54, followed by New York with 17 and Illinois with 13. Florida had the tenth highest number of exonerations in the country with three.

Another record was broken in regards to homicide cases, which were responsible for the largest number of exonerations last year—58 to be exact, which is more than any other year. These exonerations took place in 25 states and 54 were for murder and four were for manslaughter. The largest percentage of homicide exonerees were African American at 49%, followed by Caucasian at 32%, then Hispanic at 11%, and other at nine percent. Of the 58 total homicide exonerees, 55 were men and three were women, ranging in age from 14 to 54. Eight of them were under 18 years old, and 23 were under 20 years old. Homicide exonerees spent an average of 18 years in prison, and all together spent 696 years in prison. Five of them were sentenced to death, 14 received life without the possibility of parole, five received life with the possibility of parole, and the rest were sentenced to decades in prison.

Drug cases also broke a record, in which 47 people were exonerated for drug possession. Of those 47 exonerees, 42 of them had pled guilty in Harris County, Texas alone. The exonerees may have pled guilty for several reasons, such as because they thought the drugs found on them contained illegal substances even though they actually did not or because they had previous criminal records and could not afford to hire a decent attorney or go to trial even though they were innocent. Many times, people were arrested on the error of police officers that may have identified something as a drug when it actually was not; for example misidentifying over-the-counter medication as prescription pills. Errors can also occur when officers perform field tests that are used to identify controlled substances because these tests are often unreliable, sometimes even mistaking candy for drugs. Drug case exonerees received sentences ranging from community service to two years in jail.

Records were also set last year in regards to how wrongful convictions occurred in the first place. False confessions were responsible for a record 27 exonerations. Of those 27 exonerations, 22 were homicide cases in which most defendants were under the age of 18, mentally handicapped, or both. Among death sentences in the United States, the rate of false confessions is about four percent. Official misconduct was involved in a record total of 65 cases, and in three quarters of homicide cases. Guilty pleas were responsible in another record total of 65 cases. The majority, or 46, of guilty pleas were in drug cases, and a record number of eight were in homicide cases, which all involved false confessions.

Some exonerations occurred because it was found that no crimes actually occurred. No-crime cases were involved in a record number of 75 of 2015’s exonerations, 48 of which were drug cases, six of which were murder convictions—yet another record—and 14 of which were for other violent felonies.

DNA evidence was wholly or partially responsible for 26 exonerations—17% of the 149 total exonerations last year. Of all exonerations recorded by the Registry, DNA exonerations are involved in 24% of them.

2015 was also a big year for Conviction Integrity Units (CIU). These units are branches of prosecutorial offices that focus on preventing, identifying, and reversing wrongful convictions. CIUs were involved in 152 exonerations overall between 2003 and 2015, including a record-breaking number of 58 last year and one so far in 2016. Almost three quarters, or 109, of the 152 CIU exonerations occurred in 2014 and 2015. In addition, almost half took place in Harris County, Texas thanks to their CIU.

While exonerations may now be considered commonplace, the work to free the wrongfully convicted continues.

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Credit to the Feds Where It Is Due

Seth — November 30, 2010 @ 12:07 PM — Comments (0)

We are catching up here on a number of news stories that happened before Thanksgiving.  Two weeks ago, the Justice Department came out publicly to change its very pernicious policy regarding postconviction DNA testing in plea cases.  The Washington Post reports:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. . . . reversed a controversial Bush administration policy under which numerous defendants have waived their right to DNA testing even though that right is guaranteed under federal law, the Justice Department said. . . .

The waivers have been in widespread use in federal cases for about five years and run counter to the national movement toward allowing prisoners to seek post-conviction DNA testing to prove their innocence. More than 260 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated by such tests, though virtually all have been state prisoners.

The waivers are filed only in guilty pleas and bar defendants from ever requesting DNA testing, even if evidence emerges that could exonerate them. Statistics show that innocent people sometimes plead guilty, often for a reduced sentence. One quarter of the 261 people who have been exonerated by DNA testing had falsely confessed to crimes they didn’t commit, and 19 of them pleaded guilty, according to the New York-based Innocence Project.

A year ago, we blogged about this when Holder decided to review this horrible policy.  With so many criminal cases in federal court ending in pleas, the chances of someone who is innocent making a hard but strategic decision to plead guilty to avoid a much harsher sentence is great.   There has to be a way to then challenge their conviction or at least obtain the DNA evidence to do so in such a case.  The Justice for All Act, which contains the federal postconviction DNA testing provisions, was passed during the Bush Administration with much fanfare, but this Bush Administration Justice Department policy runs counter to the spirit of the Act and undermines its very purpose.

So this is a good, common-sense move by Holder and Obama.  It begs the question why anyone would prevent DNA testing in any case.  Well in Florida, we have a law that basically codifies the policy that Holder is getting rid of.  Here, if you plead tomorrow to a crime, you essentially waive any right to postconviction DNA testing later on.  Maybe Florida can learn a thing or two from the feds on this issue.

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