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Record number of US exonerations driven by Texas drug cases

January 27, 2015

HOUSTON (AP) — The U.S. saw a record number of exonerations in 2014, due in part to 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.

Gross said it’s unclear if the drug cases in Harris County are a reflection of a similar problem across the U.S. While Harris County still tests drug evidence in cases after a guilty plea, many jurisdictions around America 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.”

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70.

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