By Allan Turner
For the second year in a row, criminal exonerations in the United States have reached a record level, with more than one in four stemming from Harris County drug convictions, a survey released Tuesday reveals.
The study by the University of Michigan Law School's National Registry of Exonerations reported 149 of them in 2015, including 58 involving murder or manslaughter convictions.
Among Texas inmates freed from prison were Alfred Brown, sentenced to die for the April 2003 Houston killings of a store clerk and city policeman, and Hannah Overton, convicted of the 2006 fatal poisoning of a 4-year-old Corpus Christi boy. Overall, Texas led the nation with 54 exonerations.
On average, the study found, inmates exonerated last year had served 14 1/2 years behind bars.
"Last year saw record numbers of exonerations of innocent defendants in categories in which they used to be especially rare: defendants who falsely confessed; defendants who pled guilty; defendants who were convicted of low-level drug offenses," the study said.
"It seems that prosecutors and judges are increasingly willing to consider the guilt of convicted defendants in circumstances in which not long ago substantial claims of innocence were routinely ignored."
The new study found that 2015 set records for exonerations based on false confessions -- 27 cases -- and for those involving official misconduct -- 65 cases.
Registry editor Samuel Gross attributed the increase in exonerations to conviction integrity units, now in place in 24 district attorney offices throughout the nation. The Harris County unit, created in 2009 by former District Attorney Pat Lykos, was the most active in generating exonerations. Forty-two convicted Harris County drug offenders received exonerations in 2015, as did 31 in 2014.
"It's a positive development because prosecutors are able to do things that no one else can do," Gross said. "They have an extraordinary amount of power."
'Many, many more'
Still, he said, at least half of such units nationally generated no exonerations in 2015.
"A conviction integrity unit will be whatever the prosecutor will make it," he said.
Harris County Assistant District Attorney Inger Chandler, who directs the local integrity unit, said 400 drug convictions awaited review in mid-2014. In each case, she said, serious questions of guilt had developed. Lab tests showed that purported illegal drugs in the cases weren't, in reality, illegal; weren't the substance the prisoner was accused of possessing; or weren't the quantity alleged.
Chandler's two-lawyer, two-investigator department has cut the backlog by slightly more than half.
Increasingly, she said, the unit is turning its scrutiny to capital murder, sexual assaults and other potentially flawed violent felony convictions.
Nationally, the study reported 30 exonerations stemming from convictions for other violent crimes. Fifteen convicted sex offenders were freed, as were four convicted robbers and three convicted kidnappers.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, said the report indicates that miscarriages of justice continue to occur in the U.S.
"I think it's immensely disturbing that so many innocent people are being convicted of murder," he said.
"It is heartening that more of the cases are coming to light, but there are many, many more that we still don't know about. There are many people who are serving life sentences or are on death row who simply did not commit the crimes with which they were charged."
In June, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson dismissed the murder charge against Brown, saying that prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to again bring him to trial after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction.
"We re-interviewed all the witnesses," Anderson said at the time. "We looked at all the evidence, and we're coming up short. We cannot prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore the law demands that I dismiss this case and release Mr. Brown."
Brown had spent 12 years in prison, many of them on death row.
Houston police protested Brown's release, arguing that he was, in fact, guilty.
In the Corpus Christi case, Overton spent about nine years in prison after being convicted of poisoning with table salt a boy she and her husband were considering adopting.
When an appeals court overturned her conviction, Nueces County District Attorney Mark Sturka investigated and opted not to retry the case.
Houston capital-punishment proponent Dudley Sharp on Tuesday accused the National Registry of Exonerations of generating "intentional confusion" with the language it uses in its survey.
"What we need in this discussion is a distinct finding of actual innocence by an independent legal authority, not a convoluted definition of either 'exonerated' or 'wrongful conviction' as with the NRE," Sharp said.
Responded Gross: "We don't make our own judgments, we look for government decisions."
On its website, the registry says a convicted person has been exonerated if declared "factually innocent" by an appropriate authority or if pardoned, acquitted in a new trial or had charges dismissed.
"The pardon, acquittal or dismissal must have been the result, at least in part, of evidence of innocence that either was not presented at the time of the trial at which the person was convicted, or, if the person pled guilty, was not known to the defendant, the defense attorney and the court at the time the plea was entered," the website says. "The evidence of innocence need not be an explicit basis for the official action that exonerated the person."
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