By Anita Hassan and Mike Tolson
Criminal exonerations often make big news because of the agonizing years that those falsely convicted have spent behind bars -- sometimes under the specter of a death sentence -- but for those who keep track of them, it was a slew of low-level cases from Harris County that proved to be the most interesting among those recorded in 2014.
The 33 exonerations in relatively minor drug possession cases pushed the nationwide total to 125 for the year, the highest ever recorded by the National Registry of Exonerations, whose annual report was released today.
The big jump over the previous year's total occurred because of the efforts of the Harris County District Attorney's office to review numerous old drug convictions in which issues had been raised over testing of the alleged illegal substances. Erroneous lab or field testing results had been involved in several Harris County exonerations in previous years.
Even if those cases were not counted, the 2014 total would be the highest ever, the report noted. It identified 26 states that recorded at least one exoneration in a criminal case as well as 10 erroneous convictions in federal courts. About half -- 60 -- were homicide or sexual assault cases. Six were death row cases.
"A major reason for the record number of exonerations is the impact of prosecutorial Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs)," stated the report, which includes only cases where a convicted offender was later proved to be not guilty of the charged crime. "The number of CIUs and the number of exonerations they generated increased dramatically in 2014."
These units were established in the wake of a series of high-profile exonerations brought about by expanded DNA testing. In some jurisdictions, publicity over sloppy testing procedures or bad police work led local district attorneys to institutionalize some internal method of finding bad convictions. One such unit in Brooklyn, created in 2011 but beefed up under a new DA in 2014, had 10 exonerations last year, all murder convictions.
"Harris County is a totally different story," said Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor who oversees the registry. "These were guilty pleas by people who were shown to be not guilty when test results came back."
Chance for injustice
Murder and rape cases get the most attention when those convicted are exonerated. But by far the greater likelihood of injustice, numerically speaking, occurs in lesser offenses, both felonies and misdemeanors, Gross said. What the Harris County exonerations show is that the accused often are willing to plea either to get out of jail or speed up the resolution of their cases, he said.
"I don't have a solution," Gross said. "But I can see how to start crafting one for drug cases. The drug cases are easy. But what about everybody else? That's a harder problem. I don't think we can say it's impossible until we try to deal with it."
Inger Chandler, chief of the Harris County District Attorney's office conviction review section, said she believes problems in drug cases are not unusual. She began looking at drug convictions when a news reporter from Austin called her in 2013 to inquire about a dozen cases that had been overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals because lab testing showed that the substance tested was not an illegal drug.
What she found troubled her.
"I literally found cases, with just the handful that I had been asked to look at, where I found a problem at every single stage," Chandler said. "It wasn't like I found the same clog in every case, but what alarmed me was because there were so many steps, it increased the possibility that something might be missed."
Chandler's unit reviewed 130 to 150 drug cases where there were questions about lab results. She hoped to identify patterns in them and learn why mistakes were occurring, but there was no simple flaw.
Information on these drug cases passed through many people, from the crime laboratories to the defense attorneys to prosecutors and the court.
"In my opinion, there were way too many places where the information was changing hands, where the information could fall through the cracks and was falling through the cracks," Chandler said.
A $40,000 check
One case in particular that bothered her was that of a woman who spent six months in a state jail on a drug case in which she pleaded guilty before an indictment. When the lab report came back, it showed the evidence was not a controlled substance. That woman then received a $40,000 check from the state for reparations.
Another 40 Harris County convictions were dismissed after Chandler's unit found testing problems, according to the report. Those dismissals did not meet the standard of exoneration, however, because of other evidence of guilt.
The number of bad convictions could be reduced were all test results were returned before the person charged pleaded guilty, Chandler said. But that is easier said than done.
Because of the volume of tests to be done, months can pass before results come in. And because many defendants cannot make bail and might not be eligible for a recognizance bond, they remain in jail.
Between January 2013 and November 2014, the DA's office handled just under 8,000 felony drug cases that were disposed of through plea agreements. Roughly half of those pleas occurred before an indictment was returned, Chandler said. She did not have figures for misdemeanor drug cases.
"It could be that pre-trial release is a key to this problem," Gross said. "If they can be in pre-trial custody longer than the sentence they would get at trial, that is something that has to be changed."
Even where that is not the case, the speedy testing of all suspected drugs is crucial, he said, arguing that a more robust testing system only requires more resources to be allocated. The more vexing issue is low-level offenses where no simple test can prove guilt or innocence.
People awaiting trial in Harris County Jail often receive cursory legal counsel early on and often have little idea when their cases might be resolved. If they insist on a trial, the wait can be much longer.
"We don't know the rate at which people who are not guilty plead guilty to low-level crimes," Gross said. "No one would plead guilty for a crime they didn't commit except those who believe there is a substantial chance of getting convicted anyway, or the cost of going through that on their lives is so high they opt to get out as quickly as possible."
Injustice on some level likely is part and parcel of the wholesale processing of defendants, he said. There may be a fix, he said, if someone spent enough time thinking about.
"I think it's possible to come up with one," he said. "It could be done, maybe. No one has tried."
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