HOUSTON – The number of people exonerated in the U.S. rose again in 2016, with more than half of them involved in cases in which it was later determined no crime occurred, according to a report released Tuesday.
A record 94 of last year's 166 total exonerations came in such cases, according to the annual report from the National Registry of Exonerations. Almost two-thirds of those 94 were drug cases, one was for murder and 16 were for sex crimes. Harris County, where Houston is located, was home to 48 of the drug cases, in which individuals had their drug convictions dismissed after lab tests determined they never had illegal substances. There were five similar drug cases in Oregon.
University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, who edits the report, said more exonerations are not a sign the problems that result in false convictions are being resolved.
"What worries us most ... is people will say, 'Oh, exonerations are way up ... We're dealing with this problem,'" Gross said. "But the number of people convicted of crimes they did not commit who are never exonerated is much greater."
In a companion report, the registry said African-Americans have been disproportionately represented in the number of people exonerated in the U.S. in the past 28 years — making up 50 percent of murder exonerees, 59 percent of sexual assault exonerees and 55 percent of drug crime exonerees. The report attributed that in part to a disparity in the number of African-Americans convicted of crimes, noting they make up 33 percent of the prison population serving time for drug offenses and 40 percent of defendants imprisoned for murder.
Other factors cited include eyewitness misidentification and reported disproportionate stopping and searching of minorities by law enforcement.
"Biased discrimination and racism clearly play a role in these cases," Gross said. "But how much of a role they play, that's a more complicated question."
The 166 people falsely convicted and exonerated last year is six more than in 2015, the year with the previous highest total since the group began keeping records in 1989. The registry — a project of the University of Michigan Law School, the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at the University of California in Irvine and the Michigan State University College of Law — has documented 1,994 such cases in the U.S. It provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the country since 1989.
Texas had the most exonerations last year with 58. Illinois was second with 16, followed by New York with 14. More than 90 of the total U.S. exonerations involved violent felonies, including 54 homicides and 24 sexual assaults.
In the Harris County drug cases that made up most of Texas' exonerations, individuals pleaded guilty before a lab test was completed, many agreeing to plea bargains in order to not spend weeks or months waiting in jail for their cases to be tried because they couldn't afford to pay high bond amounts, according to the report. A lawsuit currently in Houston federal court argues that Harris County's bail system unfairly keeps low-income defendants — many of whom are minorities arrested for nonviolent crimes — in jail because they can't afford to pay unreasonably high bond amounts.
"These drug exonerations reflected a breakdown in the system," said Kim Ogg, Harris County's new district attorney. "They showed how people in jail were willing to plead guilty even when they weren't to get out of jail."
Ogg has lent her support to the bail lawsuit in Houston federal court, saying her office will be implementing procedures to help set reasonable bail or set defendants free on their own recognizance. Ogg said she also will put a new policy in place preventing prosecutors from agreeing to plea deals in drug cases if lab test results are still pending.
A state exoneration review commission also has asked the Texas Forensic Science Commission to evaluate the reliability of drug field tests that law enforcement uses to initially determine if a suspect has narcotics in his or her possession.
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