HOUSTON – The U.S. saw a record number of exonerations in 2014, and it was due in part to 33 cases in Texas in which individuals had their drug convictions dismissed after lab tests determined they never had illegal substances, a report released Tuesday shows.
The National Registry of Exonerations said 125 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated last year. That's 34 more than in 2013, the year with the previous highest total. The registry is a project of the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools and has documented more than 1,500 such cases in the U.S. since 1989.
The breakdown in 2014 was typical of previous years, with homicides and sex crimes making up more than half with 65 cases. Texas had the most exonerations with 39. New York was second with 17.
But the big difference in 2014 was an increase in cases where individuals convicted of drug-related charges were exonerated by lab tests that showed they didn't have controlled substances, said Samuel Gross, a Michigan law professor and registry editor.
Of the 39 drug cases in the U.S. in 2014, Harris County in Texas — home to Houston — had 33 of them. In 2013, there were only 11 such exonerations in the U.S.
Inger Chandler, chief of the conviction review section with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, said there were inconsistent practices regarding how her office handled reviews of drug convictions.
Most of the 33 drug cases in Harris County in 2014 were ones where individuals pleaded guilty before a lab test was completed. There were often delays in completing tests and even when they were finished, there could be additional delays in getting the results to prosecutors or defense attorneys.
Chandler said her office has since streamlined its procedures so that all reviews of these cases now go through her section.
When asked why someone would plead guilty to a crime they did not commit, Chandler replied, "That is the question of the day."
Chandler said she believes some of the individuals thought they did have drugs and "got a plea deal early in the process and wanted to move on."
There were also many individuals who because of their criminal history, faced higher punishment ranges if convicted at trial, she said.
"We are reviewing our internal processes ... taking a look at whether we need to wait for lab reports before allowing defendants to plead guilty," Chandler said.
Gross said it's unclear if the drug cases in Harris County are a reflection of a similar problem across the country. While Harris County still tests drug evidence in cases after a guilty plea, many jurisdictions around the country don't.
"Behind this is a much bigger question and one much harder to address," he said. "One of the reasons people plead guilty for a crime they have not committed is they can't make bail and have to wait in jail while waiting for trial. If they are convicted, they might get decades in prison. They plead guilty if they are offered a deal that is too good to resist."
Those pleading guilty in Harris County ended up getting sentences ranging from probation to two years in prison.
Chandler said she hopes people see that her office realized there was a problem with these cases and is now working to fix it.
"Everyone deserves for the process to be fair," she said.
Gross said the registry's report should be seen as a positive, as it highlights the work being done to address wrongful convictions.
He also pointed to the work of the Brooklyn District Attorney's Conviction Review Unit, which in 2014 exonerated 10 individuals in murder cases that were more than 20 years old.
"We will learn from these cases how to prevent false convictions in the future," he said. "That is the most important thing that could come out of this work."
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70.